Dan Starr: Does the Planning Inspector think the Local Plan is a ‘pig in a poke’?

Residents groups been invited to be a participant in the Planning Inspector’s hearings on the draft Uttlesford Local Plan, and we’ve been there all this week.

We’ve long made the case that the draft Local Plan is a dud. We do need more affordable homes, but our existing towns and villages can’t take the nearly 8,000 new homes required over the next 15 years. Other approaches must be considered.

National planning policies require an economics-driven sustainable approach to be taken when deciding where to build. As a huge commuter district that faces Cambridge, Harlow and London, in practical terms that means the best solution is to build the majority of homes in new settlement(s) near railway stations, A-roads and motorway exits.

But that’s not what UDC is proposing. They want to build these 8,000 homes in our existing towns and villages, even though their proposals have been unanimously rejected by 99% twice in public consultations. And their plans are against national policies, which are to build new garden towns and cities to address the affordability bubble in the south-east.

The first week of hearings were primarily about how many houses Uttlesford must build, where they should be built, and can the major roads cope. Discussions about details of the exact sites are held in the second hearing week, scheduled for December.

You never know what the Inspector is thinking, but here’s my summary:

  • The Inspector is well read up on the Plan, experienced, and seems fair and considered;
  • It seemed that UDC was found lacking on key evidence, including the numbers of new homes required per year, where to build, and if the roads can cope;
  • UDC may have failed to properly compare the different strategies for where to build, e.g. new town vs. building in our existing settlements;
  • Developers have been making a strong case that UDC has failed to properly work out how many new homes are required and they are pushing for a 40% increase (but they would say that wouldn’t they);
  • UDC seemed to have good answers for elderly care/care-home provision;
  • The UDC team seem well briefed and know their plan in detail; so does the Inspector and the other participants.

The most telling question for me was the one the Inspector asked participants at the end of day 2 after the discussion about housing numbers and locations. He asked that if he was to find the plan unsound (i.e. not good enough), should it be withdrawn, suspended to be fixed, or approved with a legal commitment to create a new plan within a short period of time. That appears like the ‘nuclear’ question; and it would seem that you’d only ask that question if you thought the plan was a pig-in-a-poke.

But this Inspector looks like a good poker player, so we’ll only find out what he’s thinking in a few weeks. He will be basing his decision on the evidence before him, and it has to be pragmatic, clear and non-partisan.

Stay tuned.

The hearings resume again from the 2nd-5th December starting at 10am each day. They are open to the public and held at the UDC offices on London Rd in Saffron Walden.

The second week agenda is as follows:

  • 2 December – Elsenham development sites
  • 3 December – Saffron Walden and Dunmow sites
  • 4 December – Newport and Henham sites; General Development Principles
  • 5 December – Retail Strategy; Environment