Updated 31 October 2019
We have continued to express concerns after the Planning Inspectorate unexpectedly cancelled the next round of Local Plan hearings.
Despite having the Local Plan evidence 169 days earlier, the Government Appointed Inspector, Karen Baker, wrote to us on 17 October, about our ‘Duty to Co-operate’ with neighbouring councils to find sites for new homes. Evidence submitted to the Inspector, however, clearly demonstrates we had worked closely with our eight neighbouring councils since 2015 when we began the new Plan. In April, we met with the Government’s Planning Advisory Service to discuss our neighbours’ ability to assist with unmet housing need. The meeting confirmed they could not help. Before submitting the Plan, we also sought the opinion of a QC and industry experts who also advised our approach was sound. In light of her concerns, the Planning Inspector cancelled the remaining examination hearings planned for November.
On 28 October, the Planning Inspector wrote to us again giving detailed reasons for her decision to cancel the hearings. In response to this letter, Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council, says
“After almost two weeks, we have now received the longer note from the inspector although clearly with significant Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Planning Inspectorate input. What does it tell us? It tells us that they have clearly not read anything we sent them in response to the original note, which answers many of the claims made in this longer note. It shows us that whilst they said their minds were not made up, and we would be able to enter a dialogue, this is not the case.
“Despite this latest response, the evidence demonstrates the decision to halt our plans examination has nothing to do with the legal duty to cooperate. This was just the helpful legal emergency brake that was pulled. By the second page, the issue of housing numbers is raised and whilst there is an admission that in an area as constrained as the Sevenoaks District, the delivery of the Government’s numbers could in fact be difficult, we are under some kind of obligation to find a solution. That is simply not the case.
“It is worth reiterating how we have found ourselves here as it goes to the heart of why we feel there are other forces at work. We submitted our plan and all the evidence almost six months prior to the hearings. We know all the documents were read. We were asked 523 questions, which we answered in full and only six related to our Duty to Co-operate. If something was missing or incomplete, or indeed we hadn’t met a legal duty, the planning inspector could have at any stage called a halt to the process and asked us to do further work. This didn’t happen. The very first day of the public hearings dealt with the Duty to Cooperate, again at any time that day or the next day, the Planning Inspector could have called a halt to the hearings. Instead, the hearings went ahead as programmed for the first two weeks. At the close, we were asked to prepare for the next two-week block and the timetable was set for these final hearing dates. It wasn’t until almost two weeks after that we received the first note raising issues with the Duty to Cooperate. What had changed, who had made the decision and why?
“Why are we standing by our plan? In our plan making, we have used tried and tested methodologies throughout, engaged industry leading experts to help us compile our evidence, ran public, landowner and promoter engagement and consultation that went well above and beyond that which is required. After all that, we made sure we were ready for submission. A leading planning QC, a group of former senior planning inspectors and, on the advice of the Ministry, we also had the Planning Advisory Service look at our plan. All said our plan was sound and met the legal tests.
“What is now absolutely clear is that the relatively inexperienced inspector, who until now had only carried out a small number of examinations, had little or nothing to do with the decision making process at the Ministry or the Planning Inspectorate post the first part of the public plan examination. Instead, holding a very poor hand, her masters have decided that the best course of action is, instead of folding, to double down and attempt to bully us into withdrawing our plan.
“Well we won’t gamble on the future of our District or its environment and we certainly won’t be bullied into withdrawing our plan. We will take all the action necessary to see this plan through.”
Our Local Plan is the first to be assessed under a new planning framework and is likely to impact on following Local Plans across the country. The Plan is based on evidence, including major consultations with local people and the availability of suitable land.