Published: 12:33, 24 October 2019
| Updated: 13:17, 25 October 2019
Sevenoaks - the only district council in Kent to have had the courage to defy Government housing targets and to prepare a Local Plan for less than its "objectively assessed housing need" - has had its proposals thrown back at it by a Government inspector.
The inspector Karen Baker has written to the local authority suggesting it would be best if it withdrew its Local Plan for the time being while it answered a number of concerns.
The inspector has already held a series of hearings on the plan and more were scheduled for a couple of weeks' time, but she said that in any case she was cancelling these.
She said: "I have significant concerns about a number of aspects of the plan, both in terms of legal compliance and soundness.
"My main concern relates to the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of strategic cross boundary planning to examine how the identified needs could be accommodated.
"Indeed, the council did not formally ask neighbouring authorities if they were in a position to address its unmet housing need until just before the Local Plan was submitted for examination.
"Any failure of the duty to co-operate cannot be rectified during the examination and therefore the only option is for a report recommending non-adoption to be issued or for the plan to be withdrawn."
She added: "Furthermore, I have significant concerns about the soundness of the plan in respect of a number of areas including the approach to sustainability appraisal, the chosen strategy for growth, the assessment of the Green Belt and housing supply and distribution.
"At this point, I consider the most appropriate way forward for the Sevenoaks District Local Plan would be for the council to withdraw it from examination."
Sevenoaks District Council disputes that it failed to consult neighbouring authorities, saying it had worked closely with its eight neighbouring councils since 2015 when it began work on the new plan.
It expressed "serious concerns" about the inspector's "sudden" decision to cancel the hearings, since, they say, she had had all the paperwork 169 days earlier.
Before submitting its 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.
Council leader Cllr Peter Fleming (Con) said: “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.”
Residents across Kent had been hoping that Sevenoaks would offer some hope in the battle against ever-expanding housing growth.
The Government has required local authorities to produce Local Plans using a common formula to calculate "objectively assessed housing need."
The formula seems inevitably to result in a large increase in housing targets.
Sevenoaks' housing need figure came to 11,312 homes over its 16-year plan period, but the council decide to draw up a Local Plan that would provide only 9,410 homes, or 83% of the "requirement" arguing that the extensive area of Green Belt in the district made it impossible to meet the whole target.