Local Plan Watch: Inspectors query plan to build beyond Cambridge's green belt

Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council's joint plans to deliver thousands of new homes in the area were dealt a blow last month, when inspectors called for the examination of the documents to be suspended so that more work could be undertaken.

Cambridge: local plan examination suspended
Cambridge: local plan examination suspended

The councils are proposing that they meet a large chunk of their housing requirement in new settlements beyond the green belt, with limited development on sites on the edge of the urban area, but in a note to the authorities, inspectors Laura Graham and Alan Wood raised questions over the strategy.

The inspectors’ letter setting out their preliminary findings said that the councils assert that 48 per cent of their housing requirement will take place in new settlements, with only six per cent in sites on the edge of the urban area, including a "very small" number of green belt sites.

But the inspectors’ letter questioned the sustainability of that approach. Locating development on the urban edge has significant advantages in sustainability terms, the letter said, pointing out that self-contained settlements are likely to lead to out-commuting to workplaces and other facilities and services.

The letter added: "If development is to be directed to new settlements rather than the edge of the urban area, it needs to be clear that the challenges of making such development as sustainable as possible have been addressed, in particular infrastructure requirements and sustainable transport options."

Evidence presented to the inquiry so far indicates a "significant funding gap" in relation to infrastructure provision, according to the letter.

The inspectors also highlighted "shortcomings" with the plans’ green belt review and said that the councils had failed to give sufficient consideration to larger releases of green belt land to meet development needs in the sustainability appraisal process.

The inspectors are calling on the councils to revisit sustainability appraisals so as to appraise all reasonable alternatives - including sites on the urban edge - and to suggest modifications based on that work. But the inspectors state that this does not necessarily mean that further releases of green belt land would be necessary.

Vicky Fowler, partner at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, said that new settlements had been an effective way of delivering new homes in the area in the past. She said that it is open to councils to take the view that protection of the green belt outweighs other considerations, but added that the inspectors examining the Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire local plans had judged that the documents failed to state this clearly enough.

Lisa Skinner, director at consultancy WYG, said: "I think it sends a clear message, that if you are reviewing the green belt, you need to do a thorough review of all the green belt, and have a proper evidence trail."

Beverley Firth, partner at law firm Mills & Reeve, said: "People are reading this as meaning, if you are serious there is no more [release] of land on the edge of Cambridge, you need to put forward more of a robust case."

Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society, said: "On paper, what the councils are proposing is probably the right approach, but they’ve got to prove to the inspectors that they’ve done the homework that shows it can be delivered."

Fowler also said that the inspectors’ note highlighted the difficulties posed to local authorities by updates to national planning policy guidance (PPG). The inspectors’ note said that policies on housing standards and car parking provision "do not appear to accord" with a recent written ministerial statement and subsequent amendments to planning guidance. "What makes local authorities’ jobs so difficult is the fact that the PPG can be so fluid," Fowler said. She added that local planning authorities should "have an eye" to changes to guidance when preparing plans.

In a statement last week, the councils pledged to continue to work together to address the concerns raised by the inspectors. The councils intend to produce a timetable for the additional work needed by the end of June and complete the work by the end of the year.

Further local plan updates are available here.

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