Planning inspector Roger Clews has written to the North Essex Authorities group - Braintree District Council, Colchester Borough Council and Tendring District Council – indicating that the local plan could be examined next year.
This follows Clews' announcement in June that their proposals for the three new garden communities were "unsound" and that key aspects of the delivery plan for the schemes required "significant" further work.
In September, the councils decided to continue working on the proposals for the three garden communities and agreed a way forward to progress work on the local plan.
In a letter to the councils, sent last week, Clews broadly welcomed the councils' commitment "to ensure that the plan, and the evidence base to support it, are progressed with strong evidence of constructive engagement and involvement with local communities throughout the plan, and acceptance derived locally".
But he said that the authorities need to provide evidence in response to a claim from developer Lightwood, which is questioning the legal validity of their consultation on the sustainability appraisal (SA) accompanying the plan. Lightwood is promoting a garden community proposal that has not been included in the joint plan.
Clews’ letter said: "Notwithstanding an absence of complaints, I suggest that it would be prudent for the authorities to seek a legal opinion on whether the process they describe here meets the requirements of the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004, and in particular regulation 12(5) in respect of consultation on the scope and level of detail of the SA report for the section 1 plan as a whole."
He added: "The legal opinion would need to consider whether the relevant requirements of the regulations have been followed; and if any have not, whether any prejudice potentially caused thereby is capable of being remedied, and what the necessary remedial steps would be."
Lightwood had written to the inspector questioning changes in the councils’ proposed evaluation criteria for the SA and whether there has been a proper scoping process.
The councils say that they will meet statutory consultees the Environment Agency, Historic England and Natural England and participants in the examination hearings over the scope and level of detail to be included in the appraisal report.
Clews said that "on the information currently before me, I consider it unlikely that substantial prejudice to any party would arise specifically from changes in the evaluation criteria to be used in the further SA work, given the extent of the proposed consultation process on any such changes".
However, he advised the councils to take legal soundings on the matter. He also confirmed that he is available to carry out hearing sessions in June next year, but will review progress on the evidence base on a monthly basis.
A spokesperson for the North Essex Authorities said: "We welcome the inspector’s positive letter agreeing the council’s approach moving forward. The NEA’s benefit from continued legal advice and the approach that they have taken to carrying out the sustainability appraisal is consequently informed by that legal advice."
*This article was updated on 27/11/18 to include the above comment from the North Essex Authorities.