Local Plan Watch: Councils react angrily to PINS exam findings

Heated exchanges between councils and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) in the past month over plan examinations features in this week's round-up of local plan news.

Angry reactions to findings: PINS headquarters in Bristol
Angry reactions to findings: PINS headquarters in Bristol

In Kent, Sevenoaks District Council hit out at a planning inspector's recommendation that it withdraws its local plan from examination, saying it called into question "the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country" and querying the independence of the inspector.

Inspector Karen Baker wrote to Sevenoaks Council in October, following the first stage of its local plan examination hearings. 

She concluded that the council had failed to carry out its statutory duty to cooperate with neighbouring councils in selecting sites for new homes and recommended that the plan be withdrawn to avoid finding the plan to be not legally compliant in her final report.

In a strongly-worded response, council leader Peter Fleming 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 in allocating sites, adding:

"To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the inspector. 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 accused the inspector of not being independent and accused PINS and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Governmentn of "a huge abuse of the process".

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

Meanwhile, in Bedfordshire, Central Bedfordshire Council accused two planning inspectors of withholding crucial correspondence in relation to its local plan examination after the inspectors raised "serious concerns" about aspects of the document.

Central Bedfordshire made the accusation after the inspectors raised a series of concerns about the plan’s preparation and the authority's approach to the examination process, which they warned raised the likelihood of significant delays before the plan's adoption.

The inspectors, Matthew Birkinshaw and Helen Hockenhull, also said participants in the examination hearings had raised "serious concerns" about difficulties in following the process given the amount of post-submission evidence filed by the council and the apparent way in which this "sought to retrospectively justify the plan’s strategy".

Responding to the inspectors in a letter on 11 October, Andrew Davie, assistant director of development and infrastructure at Central Bedfordshire Council, raised concerns about the inspectors referring to correspondence received after the hearings that they had referred not published or provided to the council. 

"Taking into account communications that have not been made publicly available is absolutely not acceptable and is not in the spirit of a public examination which is intended to be open and transparent," he said.

In a further letter (dated 14 October), Davie said: "The tone of the [inspectors’] letter and its lack of clarity does not appear to be consistent with a desire to work proactively with the council to progress this plan, which is not hugely helpful." 

Following this, the inspectors admonished the council for "incorrectly" claiming the document's housing target would not need to be increased.

Birkinshaw and Hockenhull upbraided the council for issuing a statement to the public suggesting that "no issues have been raised in relation to the plan’s detailed policies", highlighting a specific assertion that the plan’s housing targets would not need to be increased. 

PLAN UPDATES

Submission News:

London: Westminister City Council voted to submit its draft Westminister City Plan to the Planning Inspectorate for examination in a meeting on Wednesday (13 November).

Preparation news:

Suffolk: Ipswich Borough Council voted to go ahead with a review of the council's 2017 adopted local plan in a meeting on 29 October.

Adoption News:

Berkshire: Reading Borough Council voted to adopt is local plan at a full council meeting on 4 November. The plan was found sound in October


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