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High Court backs planning inspector over Sevenoaks council's Local Plan

Sevenoaks District Council is considering what to do now after its attempts to challenge a Government inspector's rejection of its draft Local Plan through a Judicial Review failed.

Last year, the planning inspector Karen Baker rejected the council’s draft Local Plan for failing on its "duty to co-operate" with other authorities.

Is it back to the drawing board for Sevenoaks?
Is it back to the drawing board for Sevenoaks?

In June this year, Mr Justice Dove granted the council permission to challenge the inspector's decision through a judicial review.

But after a hearing in September, the court's decision published ominously on Friday 13th last week went against the council.

In essence the judge agreed with the inspector that once Sevenoaks realised it was not going to meet its Government-set housing targets, it should have officially sought help from the neighbouring boroughs of Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling.

It never officially asked Tonbridge and Malling for help, and only asked Tunbridge Wells very late in the process.

In its evidence Sevenoaks contested that it had been in close discussions with both neighbouring boroughs over many years and knew full well that they wouldn't be able to take any extra housing on its behalf. Tonbridge and Malling had only met its own target by de-classifying an area of Green Belt land, and Tunbridge Wells was still struggling to meet its own housing requirements.

The High Court in London where the decision was made
The High Court in London where the decision was made

Neither the inspector nor the judge were confident that the other authorities would have offered to help, but insisted that Sevenoaks should have asked.

The inspector said: "Ultimately, this process may, or may not, have led to the same outcome.

"However, it is not possible for me to know whether this would have been the case because effective and constructive engagement on this issue did not take place."

As a consequence she ruled the Sevenoaks plan was "not legally compliant" and could not be adopted.

Council Leader Peter Fleming said: “We're clearly disappointed and somewhat bemused by the ruling from Mr Justice Dove, especially as the ‘duty to cooperate’, the reason given by the Planning Inspector to reject our plan, is set to be abolished in the Government’s own proposed planning reforms."

Cllr Peter Fleming: 'Disappointed'
Cllr Peter Fleming: 'Disappointed'

“In our opinion, the removal of the ‘duty to cooperate’ is an open admission that it is neither effective nor workable in the local plan making process.

"Despite this, we believe we both met and exceeded the requirement."

The council had submitted 800 page of evidence setting out how it had worked with its neighbouring authorities.

Cllr Fleming said: “Court action is never something we would enter into lightly.

"But, our plan reflects our communities’ priorities of protecting the rural nature of the district and the Green Belt while providing much needed new homes and improved infrastructure."

'The case must be dismissed'

Cllr Fleming said: "We will always stand up for the communities we serve.”

Sevenoaks was the only one of Kent's 13 local authorities brave enough to reject the high housing targets the Government imposed on it.

Using the Government's "objectively assessed housing need" formula, Sevenoaks' target figure came to 13,960 dwellings over the 20-year plan period from 2015 to 2035.

But the council decided to draw up a Local Plan that would provide only 10,568 dwellings or approximately 75% of the Government's target, arguing that the extensive areas of Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the district made it impossible to meet the full quota.

Mr Justice Dove said: "It is clear that the inspector had careful regard to all the material which was placed before her and reached conclusions which were lawful and appropriate. In my view, her reasons were clear, full, detailed and justified.

"It follows that there is no substance in any of the grounds upon which this claim is advanced and the applicant's case must be dismissed."

Cllr Fleming said: "We are reviewing the judgement in detail and considering our options.”

The full High Court judgement can be found here.

Read more: All the latest news from Sevenoaks

Read more:All the latest news from Tonbridge

Read more:All the latest news from Tunbridge Wells

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