South Staffs – A totally predictable ‘clusterf###k’ Local Plan Examination

Amongst the names of local authorities that are heading for disaster and have plunged over the cliff despite all warning there are a few sad cases, one that always come up are the likes of St Albans, South Oxfordshire, Erewash and yes South Staffs – all of which think they have a duty to obstruct and stick two fingers up to all of their neighbors.

They have taken advantage of the fact they have a core strategy (without allocations) adopted in 2012 before any overspill form any adjoining area, Black Country, Brum, Stafford, Cannock Chase or Wrekin was set; taking advantage of recent case law (including Cooper Estates v Tunbridge Wells BC [2017; EWHC 224 (Admin)]; Oxted Residential Ltd v Tandridge DC [2016; EWCA Civ 4140]; Gladman Development Ltd v Wokingham BC [2014; EWHC 2320 (Admin)];) that an allocations plan following a recent core strategy does not have to examine the baseline housing numbers.  In effect the Site Allocations Plan has become the world biggest neighbourhood plan, knowingly allocating some but not enough as a tactic for deliberately delaying not allocating enough.

Just take the following quotes from the inspectors initial queries, the harshest from any initial queries letter of any examination anywhere.  How could it even be necessary for an Inspector to ask these questions unless an LPA was treating an SEA/AA and DTC process as a tickbox exercise designed to avoid the council assessing difficult but necessary options and decisions.

Inspectors letter

A Sustainability Appraisal (SA) of the Submission Plan has been submitted
[SD10], along with previous versions of the SA produced for earlier stages of
plan preparation. Can the Council confirm that the SA was undertaken
having regard to the requirements of the Strategic Environmental
Assessment Directive and Regulations and guidance in the PPG [ID-28-
020]; confirm that the SA work influenced the preparation of the SAD
and that any mitigation measures have been addressed; and that the
SA work considered alternative policy options and sites, including
those put forward in the representations?

c. Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) has been submitted as part of the
evidence base [SD11]. Can the Council confirm that adequate HRA has
been undertaken to ensure that the SAD does not adversely affect any
nature conservation sites protected by European legislation, including
the Cannock Chase Special Area of Conservation, and whether there
are any outstanding issues or concerns from the relevant bodies (eg.
Natural England/Environment Agency)?

By the way the Inspectors report contains a big mistake I think.

Many representors, including developers and landowners, have put forward additional or alternative sites which they consider should be included in the SAD. However, the primary purpose of the examination is to consider whether the submitted Plan, with its proposed site allocations, is sound.Consequently, the examination should concentrate on whether those sites allocated in the submitted Plan are sound, and participants should focus on this issue, rather than promoting their own sites.

No No No.  It is the submitted plan which is being examined.  However it is perfectly legitimate for an objector to put forward alternative sites if their omission is so grave as to render a plan unsound.  This principle  was firmly established in the sadly unpublished potential legal challenges to the Ashford Core Strategy, where the Dept and LPA backed down admitting that there was no ‘presumption in favor of soundness’ in the act (despite ministerial statements at the time) and the inspector admitting they had to consider alternative sites required though meeting the SEA directive and to address issues of soundness.  In the end it was found the LPA had miscalculated the evidence and the key promoted site was necessary to ensure soundness.

This is not to say every tiny site should be challengable.  But that’s a good argument for having a policy excluding tiny sites from local plans, so then the examination doesn’t become a multi year marathon like so many .  The purpose of a local plan is to paint the pig picture and allocate the big sites.  It is not to clasp down forever every village boundary in a straitjacket because that’s the local pressure on cllrs.