The start date for the Planning Inspector’s inquiry into Lancaster’s Local Plan has been postponed.
The Lancaster Local Plan was approved by Lancaster City Council in December 2017.
It sets out proposals for the construction of 12,000 new houses across the district by 2034, a large number of which would be part of the Bailrigg Garden Village plans.
A start date for the inquiry, with examinations due to be held at Lancaster or Morecambe Town Hall, was initially set at January 8 2019, however the government’s appointed inspector, Richard McCoy, has now postponed it.
He has raised questions with the council for failing to deliver evidence on time and attempting to amend the plan after it had been submitted for inspection.
He said in a written response: “...I am concerned that there is no provision in statute that allows the Council to revise and re-submit a plan that has already been submitted to the Secretary of State for examination without first withdrawing it.
“I consider that it would not be lawful to examine/make recommendations on what purports to be a ‘revised plan’ as there is no statutory basis to do so. The Plan being examined is therefore the originally submitted and not the revised Plan.” A further letter reads: “I would also remind the council that it is for me to consider how any suggested modifications to the submitted plan should be addressed and therefore, whether they are necessary for the soundness of the plan and acceptable.”
Meanwhile campaign group CLOUD (Citizens of Lancaster Opposed to Unnecessary Development), have challenged the housing-need statistics and job forecasts which underpin the Local Plan. They also argue that it lacks key components especially relating to transport and infrastructure costs.
A spokeswoman said: “We await the Inspector’s response to the council’s proposed timetable for the inquiry. This hardly builds confidence. In his letters, Mr McCoy has now raised concerns which have been troubling Lancaster people ever since the Local Plan was first published. There have been widespread criticisms of the way the plan was first and inadequately drafted and yet approved by Council, and then repeatedly and still incoherently modified after it had been submitted for central government approval.”
Coun Janice Hanson, cabinet member with responsibility for regeneration and planning, said: “The dates for the hearing sessions had not been set by the Inspector, so this is not a formal postponement but a later start than had been anticipated.
“It is not at all unusual for local plan hearing sessions to be postponed or even suspended once they have begun. Often the inspector will open examination hearing sessions and then decide that they should be suspended for further work to take place.
“Simply put, the local plan process is extremely challenging, especially when you consider the strong vision for the future and level of growth that the city council has set out, compared to many other local authorities.
“The council will be responding to the inspector’s pre-hearing note shortly, but in short the inspector has asked for clarity on the evidence to be completed. Transport assessment work in particular has continued to evolve following the completion of the Bay Gateway and the re-opening of the city’s Greyhound Bridge after major refurbishment.
“This transport assessment work is nearing completion and will be ready shortly.”
Coun Hanson said that completed evidence will be made available for consultation and comments made available to the inspector. She said the council is also working with Lancashire County Council to prepare a bid for Housing Infrastructure Funding to support transport infrastructure and enable development, including the Bailrigg Garden Village proposal.
It was then submitted to central government for the Secretary of State to appoint a planning inspector, whose role is to consider objections to the plan submitted by Lancaster residents and to decide on its soundness. Under this plan 12,000 new houses would be constructed over the period to 2034 and a substantial number of these would be in the proposed Bailrigg garden village.
In October this year, the start date for the planning inquiry was announced as 8 January 2019. However, in a strongly worded letter (dated 19th November) to the City Council, the Planning Inspector, Richard McCoy, postponed the start date indefinitely. He criticised the Council for failing to deliver evidence on time and attempting to amend the plan after it had been submitted for inspection.
The Inspector’s letter is a damning indictment of the Council, reminding them that the plan as submitted should have been sound and finalised and should not have been submitted unless the Council was confident of this. It includes these statements :
Correspondence between the Inspector and the council has now moved on quite a bit. The Council responded to the Inspector on 23rd November, generating a pretty irate reply from him on 10th December, where he again raises his concern over the apparent attempt by the City Council to make major modifications to the Local Plan. He states:
“I note from your letter that the Council once again refers to modifying the …..plan to further improve soundness….In response I would again stress that it is not the role of the Examination to deal with changes to the Plan that would improve soundness……..It is not therefore to be expected….that the Council should produce a suite of documents post submission aimed at improving the soundness of a plan.”
He goes on to raise the issue of the date of the Planning Inquiry rejecting, unless there were strong reasons to the contrary, the Council’s proposal to delay until May 2019.
In response, on 11 December, the City Council finally acknowledges that :
“it is not the role of the Examination to deal with changes to the Plan that would ‘improve soundness’.”
The Council also proposed a timetable of key events, leading up to the start of the Planning Inquiry on 15 April 2019.
There the matter rests - for the moment at least! It is remarkable that so much time was spent during October 2018 on consultations over ‘modifications’ which were not admissible, nor, it has to be said, clearly explained to consultees. The key question must now be: where does this leave Lancaster City Council, at the very time when its CEO, Susan Parsonage, is departing for Wokingham Borough Council? The ‘story’ has yet to unfold but it does not inspire confidence. The letters leaves little doubt that the Planning Inspector is unimpressed by proceedings so far.
Note : The correspondence between the Inspector and the Council is in the public domain on the local plan page of the Lancaster City Council Local Plan Examinations webpage