The cathedral city of Ely is making its mark on planning history.
A former brewery on the banks of the Great Ouse is the setting for a debate over the first new-style regional planning document.
Once adopted the East of England Plan will not only form the backdrop for local development frameworks across the region, it will also take the place previously occupied by six county structure plans at the sub-regional level. The level of development promoted by the regional spatial strategy (RSS) is a major talking point.
The East of England Regional Assembly's jobs-led growth strategy and the region's capacity to accommodate growth face rigorous testing at a public examination that got under way last week (Planning, 4 November, p1). The strategy proposes 478,000 homes between 2001 and 2021, split between locations that are ripe for delivery and those in need of action to counter deprivation.
The RSS also seeks to create 421,500 jobs across the region in line with the regional economic strategy drawn up by the East of England Development Agency. The objective is to provide a sufficient number of jobs to avoid the region becoming a magnet for long-distance commuting and to achieve regeneration across its more deprived urban areas.
Former Essex County Council deputy chief executive Mike Burchell gave evidence on behalf of the assembly at the examination. He told the hearing that the jobs-led approach is aimed at supporting the strengths of the regional economy and ensuring that regeneration is "soundly based on improvement in economic performance and the creation of enduring high-quality employment".
Burchell explained that the strategy has been developed out of concern that "high levels of out-commuting and congestion should not be exacerbated by building large numbers of houses without associated growth in jobs".
But environmental organisations feel that a region already suffering from heavy congestion should not be asked to accommodate further growth.
Corinne Meakins, regional director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, warned that the policy could lead to a "circularity" effect in which the new jobs would merely attract more people to the region. This will do little to improve the quality of life for current residents and will add to the pressure on services, she maintained.
English Nature deputy regional director Greg Smith argued that in its present form the plan "presents the environment as a constraint to other objectives rather than seeing it as a legitimate objective with equal status". He told the hearing that objectives to improve the quality of the environment should be integrated more fully with other key targets in the strategy.
But other parties insist that the proposed rate of growth is not high enough. John Holden of Pegasus Planning Group, representing Taylor Woodrow and Persimmon Homes, contended that the strategy should seek to deliver more homes where they are needed most. If it does not, he claimed, there will be overcrowding and homelessness.
Town and Country Planning Association planning officer David Waterhouse agreed, calling for 43,000 homes a year to tackle housing shortages and a new settlement to be considered among the growth options. But Waterhouse insisted that homes should be built to strict environmental standards and with a light ecological footprint.
The examination, chaired by Alan Richardson, will sit until March, moving to Letchworth Garden City midway through. During this time it will scrutinise plans for sub-regions throughout the East of England, including a proposed review of green belts around Stevenage, Harlow and the Thames Gateway.
It promises to be an interesting four months.