With so much riding on the district’s ability to control the where and how of housing development residents will be very disappointed to learn that assembling a new Local Plan has been paused and thus delayed, yet again.
Frankly, we are not surprised. If nothing else, it shows just how difficult it is to meet a high housing target in a district with so little transport infrastructure, a predominance of agricultural land and a chequered history of botched planning.
Bear in mind this is the fourth attempt. The proposed Local Plan in 2014 was rejected by the Planning Inspectorate and a revised plan in 2016 was withdrawn with little explanation. This was followed in 2018 by a scheme for three major new settlements including a 5000-house new town adjacent to Great Chesterford, known as North Uttlesford Garden Community. This particular aspect was heavily criticised by the Planning Inspector and contributed significantly to the Plan being withdrawn on the recommendation of the Inspector.
Uttlesford’s original plan, made in 2005, was due for updating in 2010. In the intervening years, while Uttlesford has had no up-to-date plan, more than 6,000 houses were built in the district on-spec (2009 – 2019), a growth of nearly 19% and among the highest increase in housing stock of any local planning authority in England. This growth has absorbed much of the easily developable land and less contentious sites while producing negligible additional infrastructure. So here we now are with schools, GP surgeries, and main access roads bursting at the seams, and a council with planning resources severely depleted by successive austerity cuts.
When Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) swept to power in 2019 there was an expectation that they would ‘get it right’. Change within Uttlesford was certainly needed, but can the promise be delivered while a one-size-fits-all national policy makes it near impossible for Uttlesford to achieve Govt housing expectations? That obligation is made more difficult so long as national policy – rightly – requires protection of landscape and heritage assets, which Uttlesford has in abundance. There is also the need to conserve high-grade agricultural land (presently the subject of much debate about food security), growing pressure for land to be given over for solar farms, and for land to be provided for biodiversity gain to offset that lost by development. Instead of moderating these competing pressures government has simply left it to the market with predictably chaotic results.
The current administration is now as beleaguered as the Conservatives were towards the end of their reign at UDC; however, circumstances are different: notably, the impact of the pandemic and much needed change in key officers at UDC, both resulting in lost time. A new Chief Executive has been a breath of pragmatic fresh air and a new Director of Planning has arrived hot from the ministry responsible for planning policy. The full effect of their arrival will not become apparent for a while.
Questions need to be asked, not least to ensure that the mistakes that got the council to this point are not repeated. We also need a credible plan of action. Neil Gregory, as chair of the Council’s Scrutiny Committee, has written to the executive placing on record a number of searching questions about the Local Plan process. The letter in full can be seen below.
The delay to the Local Plan is deeply frustrating, especially as the Plan is an opportunity to put in place much needed policies covering water usage, sewage and river protection, climate change, and other important topics that have been absent from UDC’s policy base. These are elements that Richard Pavitt has been working on as part of the Local Plan Leadership Group. It is an opportunity for a holistic approach to Uttlesford’s future. Thankfully this policy development is continuing in the background while the broader strategy on housing delivery is refreshed.
We will be updating residents on the Local Plan process as soon as we know how the governing administration intends to move forward. We gain some reassurance from the fact that the new Director of Planning, who joined a few months ago, was deputy planning director to the Secretary of State for housing & local government and thus has an intimate understanding of the process. We have been in discussion with him and have laid out our concerns.
The letter to the Chief Executive and Director of Planning (19 August 2022) jointly from the chair and deputy chair of the Scrutiny Committee:
We write following our discussion with Peter and in respect of the Local Plan (LP) process in our capacities as Chair and Vice-Chair of Scrutiny.
The role of Scrutiny in the LP process is well documented and was rehearsed in detail at the 21 March, 26 May, 16 June, and 30 June meetings of Scrutiny. As discussed, there are areas where we would request both clarification and reassurance, ideally before the next committee cycle in relation to the LP starts in September.
- We are informed that a senior member of the LP team has submitted their notice at the end of July. What is the likely timetable for a new, permanent member of staff?
We note that 27 of the 44 items on the LP Risk Register (16 June version submitted to Scrutiny on 30 June) have this individual as the “Assigned Officer”. What steps have been/are being taken to reallocate these duties?
Risk 2, RED before mitigation, AMBER afterwards identifies “insufficient capacity and skills to complete the plan”. How is this risk affected by this development?
Risk 17, RED before mitigation, AMBER afterwards identifies “loss of staff…”. How is this risk affected by this development?
The Workstream Status Report (16 June) states, inter alia, . “It is vital that all staff changes related to the LP preparation are managed promptly and effectively given the demanding timescales and the current crucial stages of the process.” What measures are being taken given this development?
What changes to the Local Plan Workplan Dashboard are anticipated?
There have been extensive discussions about the role of Scrutiny in the LP process at recent meetings of Scrutiny, as attested by the minutes and recordings, including a detailed recital of the various relevant minutes of Scrutiny, Cabinet, and full Council. This arose following concerns about the lack of project management meetings and the failure to provide early notification of two delays to the LP. As such we would welcome reassurance on these matters.
- We note that the Transport Study is unlikely to be completed before publication of the Reg 18 LP according to the Risk Register and Workstream Status Report. We request detailed clarification of how a robust Reg 18 plan can be produced in these circumstances.
We are unsure of the status of the Water Cycle Study and would welcome clarification of this and how it will feed into the Reg 18 LP.
Please update us on the status of the “duty to cooperate” with neighbouring authorities. In particular we would welcome details of the specific discussions regarding the major Wellcome development just to the north of the district and county boundary.
Please provide a detailed explanation of the current status of the CPZ in respect of the draft Local Plan
- As is well documented the current LP dates back to 2005. There were well documented failures of a new plan in 2014, 2016 and 2020, all of which predate the current administrative and political incumbents.
The letter from HM Planning Inspectors of 10 January 2021 lists in painful detail the areas and issues leading to the most recent failure. Given the concerns above, it is therefore incumbent that as a Council determine that the lessons and points raised by HM Inspectors have been fully addressed and acknowledged.
Whether these matters are ‘process’ issues and thus within the remit of Scrutiny, or ‘substance’ issues and within the remit of LPLG is moot.
Accordingly, please provide detailed and specific answers to whichever forum you deem most appropriate in respect of the the following questions.
For ease of reference we have listed these as the paragraph numbers in HM Inspectors report. We also attach the report for your convenience.
Para 2- How has this been/will be addressed?
Para 8- How has this been/will be addressed?
Para 11- How has this been/will be addressed?
Para 12- 15 – How have/will these matters be addressed?
Para 38-60 – Please detail how matters re transport, infrastructure, RTS, trunk road capacity and other issues identified will be addressed. We once again note the Transport Study is stated to be unlikely to be available at Reg 18.
Paras 70 -94 – Should the forthcoming Reg 18 LP contain proposals for development in the same area/vicinity of the previous North Uttlesford 2020 proposal – what are the precise and detailed responses to the issues raised by HM Inspectors? Please list these individually as per the Inspectors concerns.
Paras 95 -104 – Should the forthcoming Reg 18 LP contain proposals for development in the same area/vicinity of the previous Easton Park 2020 proposal (West of Dunmow) – what are the precise and detailed responses to the issues raised by HM Inspectors? Please list these individually as per the Inspectors concerns.
Para 111 – How has this been/will be addressed?
Para 112-116 – How have/will these matters be addressed?
We are mindful of Cllr Evans minuted observation in respect of the Local Plan at the 6 July 2020 Scrutiny Committee that “Accountability is at the core of the governance process”.
We look forward to your reply indue course.
Finally, we note the apparent IDP circulated inadvertently by contractors. This document (whatever its status) whilst clearly outwith the remit of Scrutiny has demonstrable and copious errors of fact, we will raise these points in separate correspondence.
Neil Gregory, Chair, Scrutiny Committee
Garry LeCount, Vice-Chair, Scrutiny Committee