Kent council leader slams "charade" local plan process

A Kent council has hit out at the "thinly veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally-led", arguing that a planning inspector's recommendation that it withdraws its local plan from examination calls into question "the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country".

Sevenoaks, Kent. Image by grassrootsgroundswell, Flickr
Sevenoaks, Kent. Image by grassrootsgroundswell, Flickr

Planning inspector Karen Baker wrote to Sevenoaks District council last month, following the first stage of its local plan examination hearings, concluding that the council had failed to carry out its duty to cooperate with neighbouring councils to find sites for new homes.

In a strongly-worded response, council leader Peter Fleming lashed out at the decision.

He said: "It is clear to me the way this has been handled calls into question the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country."

He said that the council had followed an evidence-led approach without prejudging any sites.

"To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the inspector," he said.

"If we are not to follow the evidence to make our plan then the government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites; we need to put an end to the thinly-veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally led."

Fleming also criticised the inspector for publishing her note before allowing the council to see her reasoning or having a chance to respond.

"This suggests her mind is far from open and she and her masters have made their minds up," he said.

Fleming said the council would stand up for its residents and the environment against what "we believe is a huge abuse of the process by the Planning Inspectorate and the government department responsible".

He added: "We will not allow them to run roughshod over the huge weight of evidence we have amassed, community views we have collated and the few powers we have left as a planning authority."

In a more detailed note sent after Fleming’s comments, Baker said: "I consider that the council has not adequately undertaken constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need in the district and has failed to plan strategically by not sufficiently examining how these needs could be accommodated.

"The absence of such engagement means that neither the submitted plan nor neighbouring authorities’ plan-making processes have been shaped by adequate consideration of how Sevenoaks’ full housing need was to be met."

She said that any failure in the duty to cooperate "cannot be rectified once the plan has been submitted for examination", meaning the plan should be withdrawn to avoid a report concluding the plan is not legally compliant.

In a statement, the inspectorate said: "Inspectors are independent and impartial and undertake ongoing, comprehensive training.

"The inspector examining the Sevenoaks local plan has more than 17 years’ experience as an inspector, most of which has been at a senior level and she has previously examined several local plans.

"Our inspectors are conscientious and professional public servants carrying out a difficult job. They are operating in an area where people and organisations have strongly held and opposing views.

"Inevitably the decisions and recommendations our inspectors make will be unpopular with some.

"The inspector has carried out the examination in an open, fair and impartial manner having regard to the submitted written evidence and that presented at the hearings."

In November last year, the council voted to drop eight out of 12 green belt sites that had been earmarked for development in the emerging local plan.


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