Inspector Stephen Pratt’s interim findings into the draft Cheshire East Local Plan, published this morning, warned that the plan would probably not be found sound in its current form.
His findings prompted chancellor George Osborne, a Cheshire MP, to express his regret at the plan’s suspension and his support for the council's announcement that it would carry out further work over the next six months to address Pratt's concerns.
The plan proposes a minimum of 27,000 new homes and 13,900 new jobs by 2030. It includes the release of 16 green belt sites in the north of the district and the creation of new green belt in the south.
In his interim findings, Pratt said the plan’s economic strategy was "unduly pessimistic" in its assumptions about economic and jobs growth.
The council had considered scenarios that produced figures as high as 47,900 jobs over the plan period, he said, which "may better reflect the more optimistic aspirations of the [plan’s] economic strategy".
There was "a serious mismatch" between the plans economic and housing strategies, he added, "particularly in the constrained relationship between the proposed level of jobs and the amount of new housing".
Pratt went on to say: "As many participants have said, this could be a strategy for economic failure."
By not providing enough houses for new employees, Pratt said, the plan’s economic strategy "will not be realised without significantly increased rates of commuting into the area, which is neither sustainable nor desirable".
Pratt also described "shortcomings" in the council’s objective assessment of housing needs "both in terms of establishing an appropriate baseline figure and failing to specifically take into account and quantify all relevant economic and housing factors, including market signals and the need for affordable housing".
Some parties had produced alternative estimates of 40,000 homes over the plan period, he said, that the council should have "fully considered" before the plan’s examination.
Pratt said: "The proposed level of future housing provision seems inadequate to ensure the success of the overall economic, employment and housing strategy."
He further criticised the process and evidence behind proposed amendments to green belt boundaries in the north of the district as "flawed", while there "seems to be insufficient justification" for the creation of new green belt.
Further work was also needed "to justify the spatial distribution of development, including addressing the development needs of settlements in the north of the district", Pratt added.
But the plan has complied with the legal Duty to Cooperate, he concluded.
Pratt said that if examination of the document continued, he "would probably conclude that the submitted plan is unsound due to the shortcomings in the proposed strategy and evidence base".
He described them as "fundamental shortcomings" and said the council could either suspend the examination or withdraw the plan.
In a statement, the council said it would "pause the examination to allow further work to be undertaken to address the inspector’s concerns, which is likely to be completed within six months".
Further hearings were due to take place next month.
Adrian Fisher, the council’s head of planning, said: "We must now do further work to ensure that our housing requirements match up with the economic requirement.
"We need to integrate our overall assessment of housing needs with our economic strategy."
Michael Jones, council leader, said while the work was being done, his focus would be on protecting the countryside and green belt "from unplanned development", which would involve "more neighbourhood plans and some interim policies".
George Osborne, MP for Tatton, said: "I very much regret that there will be a delay to the long-awaited local plan.
"I know Cheshire East Council have worked hard to put this in place and I’ve spoken to them about it.
"The key thing is that more work is now done over the next few months to get it absolutely right and I’m glad Michael Jones and Cheshire East Council are going to do that."
In July, Pratt raised concerns over the plan's housing needs assessment. Examination of the plan was adjourned in October so the inspector could consider a large volume of submissions from developers.
Over the past year, the council has lost a series of appeals over its lack of a five-year housing land supply, as required by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Pratt’s findings can be found here.