Cheshire East suspension encapsulates perennial planning problems, by Richard Garlick

This week's suspension of the Cheshire East local plan perfectly illustrates a couple of problems that have dogged the planning process for decades.

The first is the temptation for local planning authorities to play down their own economic potential in order to minimise the number of homes that they are required to build.

In most places, there are votes to be won by creating jobs, but not by planning housing. Stand up in a public meeting and tell voters that you are going to bring a thousand jobs to the town, and you will be carried out shoulder high. Tell them that you are going to build 1000 homes to house new workers, and you may have to make an emergency exit via the back door.

How much this political reality guided the pens of the Cheshire East local plan's authors is impossible to say.

But inspector Stephen Pratt's report reveals his concern that the council had been "unduly pessimistic" in its assumptions about economic and jobs growth. He said the scenarios that the council had considered that produced figures of up to 47,900 jobs over the plan period might be a better reflection of the plan's economic aspirations than the minimum of 13,900 that it eventually settled upon.

He identified a "serious mismatch" between the plan's economic and housing strategies. There are dangers of playing down economic potential in this way. If jobs created significantly exceed the numbers in the plan, they can only be filled by commuters making long journeys from outside the area. And, if housing supply in an area fails to keep pace with economic growth, then it may unnecessarily constrain jobs growth as companies move to places that are better able to house their workers.

The second classic planning problem illustrated by the events surrounding the suspension is that ministers' tone on planning issues when they speak about constituency matters is not always consistent with their approach on national issues.

Chancellor George Osborne, the local MP, obviously chose his words carefully when he made a statement on the suspension. He said he "regretted" the suspension, and acknowledged the work the council had put into the plan, without actually criticising the decision. However, it was hardly the ringing endorsement of the inspector's tough line that you might have expected from one of the prime movers behind the policies that were being enforced.


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