Arrow Planning director Mark Schmull explains the latest twist in the wrangle between councils in Slough and South Bucks.
Inspectors Matthew Birkinshaw and David Troy wrote to Buckinghamshire Council on May 7, 2020 setting out their initial findings on the Chiltern & South Bucks Local Plan.
These findings solely relate to the duty to co-operate (DtC), which was originally due to be considered in hearings back in March.
Due to COVID-19 this matter was considered by way of written representations and rebuttal statements. The inspectors have “significant concerns that in preparing the plan the councils did not engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis in relation to a strategic matter” which, in this instance, has particular regard to Slough Borough Council’s unmet housing needs.
This is a critical failure of the Local Plan, and, unlike other matters such as the allocation of sites, it is not one that can be addressed through modifications to the plan.
The inspectors note that “a failure to meet the DtC cannot be remedied during the examination because it applies to the preparation of the plan, which ends upon submission”. This has led to the inspectors concluding that the only option is likely to be for the council to withdraw the plan, in turn leading to the plan making process having to start again.
The issue of Slough’s unmet need is a complex matter. The discussions on this issue go back many years to 2016, with Slough Borough Council, having identified that they were not able to meet their housing need within their boundaries and would need to export some need to others.
Whilst national policy and guidance does not require local authorities to agree, they must provide evidence that they have engaged constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis and to demonstrate robustly the outcomes which the engagement has resulted in.
In this instance, the inspectors considered that this was not the case; evidence before the inspectors showed that there had been only four meetings between the councils between 2016 and 2019.
In particular the inspectors noted that there did not appear to have been any constructive, active or ongoing engagement between the councils since identifying issues in early 2018.
So what now for the Local Plan? The inspectors state that they will not reach a final conclusion on this matter until the council has had the opportunity to respond to the findings.
Cllr Warren Whyte, the newly selected Buckinghamshire Council cabinet member for planning and enforcement, stated: “The council has already been facing the prospect of building in some Green Belt areas to ensure we meet the housing needs of Buckinghamshire residents.
“To suggest that the plan should also have accommodated up to an additional 10,000 houses for Slough is ridiculous. I hope, when we present our arguments to the inspectors that they are persuaded to change their minds.”
It is understood that members and officers of the council are due to issue a response to the inspector soon and, as part of this response they will be requesting that the matter is discussed by way of hearing.
They are also understood to have additional evidence to put forward to the inspector. However, it begs the question: why was this evidence not put forward in the first instance?
This is not the first Local Plan to fail at this hurdle this year; Wealden, Sevenoaks and St Albans have all failed the DtC test in 2020.
However, even if the council is successful in convincing the inspectors that it has met the DtC requirements and that the plan should progress, this is only the first issue in a Local Plan where concerns have been raised about the sustainability appraisal; site selection process and Green Belt review.
Therefore, there would still be a long way to go before the council has an up-to-date Local Plan.
Until then, it will continue to rely upon core strategy and Local Plan policies, some of which date back to the late 1990s.
Image by Paul Holloway from Birmingham, United Kingdom – Looking down on the ChilternsUploaded by Fæ, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24941820
© Thames Tap No 210 (powered by ukpropertyforums.com)