The Uttlesford Local Plan examination is unfolding like a convoluted opera: plot, sub plots, late revelations, and a nail-biting wait for the final act. Here we summarise some of the key events particularly as relating to arguments put forward by Great Chesterford parish Council.

Prelude:

On 2nd to 4th July the Uttlesford Local Plan commenced examination in public, the culmination of more than four years work following withdrawal of the previous attempt. During that time it has become clear that Govt views Uttlesford as a necessary sacrifice on the altar of growth. Like a Soviet five-year plan, homes must be built to house the workers. There can be no dissention!

 What is also evident is that the Uttlesford Local Plan is deeply flawed, the product of a small rural council faced with a near impossible task made all the more difficult by political interference. The overriding question is whether the flaws are fatal or whether something can be salvaged and made workable?

The cast:

Broadly speaking, there are three groups. Those responsible for the plan – namely Uttlesford District Council (UDC) represented by Queens Counsel and various consultants; those objecting – individuals, town and parish councils including Great Chesterford Parish Council, which is represented by counsel and specialist consultants; and those with a vested interest – being mostly developers with land which was excluded from the Plan (some represented by QCs of high repute and no doubt eye-wateringly high fees).

Overture:

Before the examination started there was debate as to whether the plan should be withdrawn prior to examination, something hinted at by the Inspectors in a letter to UDC a few weeks earlier and again in the Inspectors’ opening remarks on day 1 of the examination.

In the autumn of 2018, the previous Conservative-led administration supported by the Liberals insisted that the plan must be submitted and as such maintained that it was ready for inspection; while the opposition led by R4U said it wasn’t. It was duly submitted. Come the May local elections, control of the council was overwhelmingly changed. The new administration was then faced with a do or don’t decision: whether to continue to examination, or to withdraw the plan. The new administration decided on balance to continue.

Act 1 – the first sessions:

This first stage comprised several arias within the topic of legal compliance; together with consideration of Objectively Assessed Need for housing and employment land (OAN); and the Spatial Strategy, namely the way in which the plan distributes housing around the district.

Amid the flow of argument against the Plan, counsel representing Great Chesterford Parish Council, Victoria Hutton, identified several significant flaws in process. Whether this and evidence presented by other parties is sufficient at this early stage to sink the plan is dependent on the weight given to it by the Inspectors.

Sustainability Appraisal:

The first salvo was fired at the sequence of events surrounding the plan’s Sustainability Appraisal (SA), a vital part of the evidence base for the Plan. When the council voted in October 2018 to pass the plan they were looking at what can be described as version 1 of the SA. Then, In November, leading planning consultants AECOM blasted the SA as inadequate, only for UDC to pay them to fix it. A second version of the SA went to public consultation in January. Counsel for GCPC argued that version 2 sought to retrospectively justify a plan council had already voted to submit; and that UDC failed to adopt an evidence-based approach. Such failure according to case-law cannot be corrected (‘cured’) by the revised version of SA.

Boom! Might that be enough to blast the Plan out of the water? Counsel argued that there had also been an irrational selection of alternatives for comparison to the proposed Plan. Among the deficiencies being a failure to consider one or two Garden Communities, rather than the proposed three; and failure to consider any other locations or new settlements of under 5,000 houses. While a 5,000 threshold was a key driver in the plan for selection of a garden community as it delivers a secondary school, it is contradicted by the latest SA, which states 3,000 houses will support a secondary school.

Duty to co-operate:

A key requirement of the plan process is for the authoring council to consult neighbouring authorities and statutory consultees. Council for GCPC argued this has been inadequate, specifically the minimal evidence of active, constructive or ongoing consultation with South Cambridgeshire District Council regarding the NUGC location. Nor has there been constructive cooperation with Historic England, a statutory consultee and emphatic critic of the site for NUGC.

The “numbers” and land supply:

There was much argument about whether the housing requirement figure (OAN) of 14,100 is correct. Apart from conceding some very minor double counting, UDC maintained that ultimately the OAN is an exercise of judgment. Whose judgment will the Inspectors support – the council’s, or those that claim the figure should be around 2,000 fewer?

The higher the housing target, the more difficult it may be to demonstrate a supply of deliverable sites sufficient to provide 5 years’ worth of housing (a key facet of the NPPF). UDC maintains that it can currently demonstrate availability of 5.03 year’s land supply, an assertion that was repeatedly challenged especially for the mid-term of the plan.

Plan timetable & Spatial strategy:

The proposed Garden Communities comprise around 70% of the plan’s total housing delivery; however the intended start dates are unrealistic, say the dozen or so developers represented at the hearing. There was a consensus that delivering the first houses by 2022 is unachievable. Consequently the intention to front load build rates at the garden communities will no longer meet the required delivery rate and magnifies the absence of other sites, which were proposed in the 2015 call for sites but excluded with no explanation or supporting evidence. They could contribute at least 4,900 houses, enough to remove the weakest link in the plan, namely NUGC.

Act 2:

The second part of the Stage 1 examination runs 16th-18th July starting with the proposed garden communities and then moving on to strategic infrastructure and London Stansted Airport. This is when the fun really starts! Expect GCPC’s scrutiny of North Uttlesford Garden Community to dive deep into the deficiencies of the site. Counsel representing GCPC will be joined by transport, landscape and heritage consultants commissioned by GCPC.

For those of you following the plan and supporting GCPC’s challenge to North Uttlesford Garden Community please don’t forget that the cost for independent assessments, assembling evidence and for representation by counsel at this first stage of the examination is in the order of £70,000. This is being entirely funded by the community. Your help in the form of a financial contribution will be gratefully accepted. Click here to make a donation.

If you enjoy the nitty gritty detail here are the questions the Inspectors will seek to have answered about the Proposed garden communities during the next stage of examination starting 16th July:

  1. How were the broad locations for the garden communities selected, and what evidence documents were produced to inform their selection?
  2. Have landscape, agricultural land, flood-risk, natural heritage and heritage assessments been carried out to inform the locations of the proposed garden communities?
  3. Is the Sustainability Appraisal of the garden community options robust, particularly with regard to its threshold of 5,000 dwellings?
  4. Are the locations of the proposed garden communities adequately identified on the policies map? Should they be more clearly defined?
  5. Have the infrastructure requirements of the proposed garden communities been adequately identified and costed? Including the requirements for: a)  road improvements; b)  rapid public transport systems and sustainable transport networks; c)  water supply and waste water treatment; d)  the provision of electricity/gas and other services; e)  primary healthcare; f)  schools and early years’ provision; g)  green infrastructure; and h)  leisure and sports facilities.
  6. Is there evidence that the infrastructure requirements will be delivered within the necessary timescales?
  7. Should policies SP5, SP6, SP7 and SP8 make more specific requirements as regards the provision and timing of the infrastructure needs for the proposed garden communities?
  8. Has the economic viability of each of the proposed garden communities been adequately demonstrated in the Uttlesford Economic Viability Study 2018. In particular: a)  Has the viability assessment been carried out in accordance with the advice in the NPPG? b)  Are appropriate assumptions made about the level and timing of infrastructure costs and other costs associated with for example the sensitive nature of the sites in terms of historic heritage? c)  Is there a contingency allowance? If not, should one be included? d)  Are appropriate assumptions made about the rate of output? e)  Are appropriate assumptions made about the timing of land purchases? f)  Is the viability threshold set at an appropriate level? g)  Should an allowance have been made for inflation? h)  Is an appropriate allowance made for finance costs? i)  Is the residual value methodology appropriate? j)  Has income from commercial floorspace been factored into the calculations?

Easton Park Garden Community (SP6)

  1. What evidence is there to demonstrate that the proposed Easton Park Garden Community is capable of delivering 10,000 homes (1,925 in the Plan period)?
  2. The Heritage Impact Assessment says this site is situated within an area of moderate to high sensitivity. Has this been factored into the calculation of the likely developable area of the site and the provision of infrastructure and services?
  3. Has any work been undertaken to assess the likely impact of the proposal on the surrounding landscape?
  4. Should the policy recognise that the site lies within ZoI for recreational impacts for Hatfield Forest SSSI?
  5. Will the working quarry on the site affect the rate of delivery of development? Are there any other likely impacts?
  6. Should the plan identify specific allocation/areas within the policy area for employment use?
  7. Does the policy refer to the most up to date sports strategy?
  8. How have any impacts from flight paths to and from Stansted airport on the Easton Park proposed garden community been considered?

North Uttlesford Garden Community (SP7)

  1. What evidence is there to demonstrate that the proposed North Uttlesford Garden Community is capable of delivering 5,000 homes (1925 in the Plan period)?
  2. The Heritage Impact Assessment says this site is situated within a sensitive landscape with significant highly sensitive areas and contains extensive heritage assets. Has this been factored into the calculation of the likely developable area of the site and the provision of infrastructure and services?
  3. Should the plan identify specific allocation/areas within the policy area for employment use?
  4. Does the policy refer to the most up to date sports strategy?
  5. Do local railway stations have the capacity to cope with the increased passenger demand likely to be created by this development?
  6. Has the proposed Genome expansion within South Cambridgeshire considered the cumulative implications of the new community North of Uttlesford?
  7. Has an assessment been made of the flood risk and if so what were the findings? Is flooding likely to affect the development of the site and if so how?
  8. How have any impacts from flight paths to and from Stansted airport on the North Uttlesford proposed garden community been considered?

West of Braintree Garden Community (SP8)

  1. What evidence is there to demonstrate that the proposed West of Braintree Garden Community is capable of delivering 10,500 -13,500 homes overall and up to 3,500 in Uttlesford (970 in the Plan period)?
  2. What arrangements have been made for joint working between Braintree and Uttlesford District Councils to deliver the proposed garden community?
  3. The Heritage Impact Assessment says this site is situated within an area of moderate to high sensitivity. Has this been factored into the calculation of the likely developable area of the site and the provision of infrastructure and services?
  4. Should the plan identify specific allocation/areas within the policy area for employment use?
  5. Does the policy refer to the most up to date sports strategy?
  6. Will this development result in the loss of a pilot training school and if so will a replacement site need to be found in order for this part of the site to be developed?
  7. How have any impacts from flight paths to and from Stansted airport on the West of Braintree proposed garden community been considered?