Sevenoaks District Council has expressed serious concerns after the Planning Inspectorate unexpectedly cancelled the next round of Local Plan hearings.
Despite having all the Local Plan evidence 169 days earlier, the Government Appointed Inspector, Karen Baker, wrote to the Council on 15 October, about its ‘Duty to Co-operate’ with neighbouring councils to find sites for new homes. She said: “My main concern relates to the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need.”
Evidence submitted to the Inspector, however, clearly demonstrates the Council had worked closely with its eight neighbouring councils since 2015 when it began the new Plan. It also worked with another nearby council, which does not share a border the District, even though it did not have to.
In April, the Council met with the Government’s Planning Advisory Service to discuss its neighbours’ ability to assist with unmet housing need. The meeting confirmed neighbouring authorities could not help. Before submitting the Plan, the Council also sought the opinion of a QC and industry experts, including former senior Planning Inspectors, who also advised the Council’s approach was sound.
In light of her concerns, the Planning Inspector has cancelled the remaining examination hearings planned for November. At this stage, she has not provided detailed reasons for her decision.
The Council has written to the Planning Inspector asking her to explain the reasons behind her decision while expressing concerns about the impartiality of the examination process.
Sevenoaks District Council’s 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 land.
Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council, says: “It is clear to me the way this has been handled calls into question the integrity of the whole plan making system in this country.
“The inspector had our submission for six months and asked over 500 questions. What’s more, the draft plan was independently verified and found sound by three external parties including the Government’s own Planning Advisory Service.
“Had there been a fundamental problem, I would have expected the examination not to have gone ahead from the start.
“As a Council we decided early on that we would follow an evidence-led approach, not prejudging any site and going where our plan making policy and the evidence took us.
“To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the Inspector. If we are not to follow the evidence to make our Plan then the Government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites, we need to put an end to the thinly veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally led.”
“But the most damning comment has to be left for the Inspector’s approach to publish her brief note before allowing the Council to either see her full reasoning or have a chance to respond. This suggests her mind is far from open and she and her masters have made their minds up.
“Sevenoaks District Council will stand up for its residents and the District’s environment against what we believe is a huge abuse of the process by the Planning Inspectorate and the Government department responsible. We will not allow them to run roughshod over the huge weight of evidence we have amassed, community views we have collated and the few powers we have left as a planning authority.”
Cllr Julia Thornton, the Council’s Cabinet Member for Development and Conservation adds:
“For the past four years, we have worked closely and met regularly with neighbouring councils and beyond as part of our Duty to Cooperate. However, they were unable to help meet our District’s housing need. Independent planning experts and the Government’s own Planning Advisory Service confirmed they could not help.
“The Inspector’s decision to cancel the examination will be a huge disappointment to the thousands of residents who took part in our consultations, helping to shape our new Local Plan. We received more than 235,000 comments and residents told us loud and clear, they wanted us to continue to protect the District while providing new homes and infrastructure for the future. Taking the Local Plan off the table puts at risk the new infrastructure, including the schools, medical and leisure facilities, we really need.
“We are pleased the Inspector has not reached a final conclusion on this matter and we will work hard and fast to find a positive and pragmatic way forward.”