To say that politics is strange and unpredictable at the moment is bordering on cliché. Brexit, the Tory leadership election, and a proliferation of new political parties* are all clear signs that we are currently in uncharted political territory.
This brave new world is also evident in local government. Recent years have seen a proliferation of local issue political parties cropping up and standing in local council elections.
In my own backyard**, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance (a political party set up primarily to stop a large development project in the centre of town) took six seats at the Borough Council during this year's council elections. Making them the third largest voting block on the Council*!
In Uttlesford, Residents for Uttlesford ,*^ actually took control of the Council in the most recent local elections, with a comfortable majority of 13 seats.
This leads us to the obvious question: What happens to planning, when a political party that is solely concerned with local issues takes control of a Council?
In Uttlesford, the immediate answer appears to be a reasonable amount of confusion. Uttlesford's draft local plan had been progressed under the previous, Conservative run, Council and was submitted for examination in January - four months before the local election.
R4U oppose the local plan in its current form. Indeed the party website states:
"Planning, Housing & the Local Plan: We must fix the Local Plan so it is evidence-led, puts infrastructure before new homes, is controlled by local communities and not developers, and provides homes that are really affordable for local people*£."
As such, it is probably not surprising that R4U wrote to PINS following the submission of the plan, to object to it and requesting to speak at the examination.
This request is causing some issues, now that R4U have taken control of the Council.
On 11 June, the Planning Inspectorate wrote to the Council asking whether concerns raised by R4U now represented the position of the Council, and, if so, whether the Council would be withdrawing the plan as a result.
The full text of the letter can be found here, but the following paragraphs are particularly interesting:
"Residents for Uttlesford’s’ representations raised several significant concerns about the plan. These include, a detailed objection to the sustainability appraisal. Other representations say that the plan is not justified or effective and is unsound in relation to the delivery of infrastructure, lack of provision of green infrastructure, lack of economic strategy, the lack of cognisance of the Stansted Airport Expansion, lack of financial modelling for the new settlements, lack of evidence to supportthe spatial strategy, inadequate transport study, missing air quality assessment, objection to a site in Saffron Walden and conflict with the NPPF on a number of counts.
These are fundamental objections that go to the heart of the Plan’s strategy and which question whether the plan is supported by an adequate, up-to-date and relevant evidence base.
As you will know the Act requires the Council to submit a plan which it thinks is ready for examination. The clear implication of this is that the LPA should only submit a plan it considers to be sound. The role of the Inspectors is to assess whether that plan is sound and, if requested by the LPA, to recommend any changes (main modifications) necessary to make that plan sound if. There is no other way in which a submitted plan can be changed. Consequently, the expectation is that the Council will go into the examination supporting the plan it has submitted. The examination is not intended to allow a LPA to initiate major changes to its own plan or to finalise its preparation.
Consequently, at the start of the first hearing session, we will ask the Council to confirm whether it continues to think that it has submitted a plan which is sound and ready for examination and therefore, whether it still supports it. Alternatively, if the Council no longer supports key aspects of the plan it has submitted, the appropriate action would be to consider withdrawing that plan from examination."
In essence, R4U is being asked to choose between withdrawing the plan and starting again, which would be consistent with their position before taking control of the Council, and allowing the examination to continue, which would be financially prudent (given the cost of progressing the plan to this point), but would involve publically stating that they now consider the local plan to be sound.
According to R4U's spokesman*" "our councillors are still to decide. They are seeking advice from officers and legal experts on the plan and the best way to protect Uttlesford from the developer-free-for-all that has been going on for a decade. Once they have done that, they will write back to the planning inspectors."
From the outside, at least, R4U do appear to be on the horns of a dilemma.
If they withdraw the local plan from examination, in order to fix the flaws that they have previously identified and campaigned on, they will be leaving the borough without an up to date local plan, and risk jeopardising both their 5 year housing land supply and housing delivery rate. This would leave them at risk of developments that are coming forward through the appeal system, rather than in accordance with an up to date local plan.
Alternatively, if they let the local plan proceed, they will reduce the financial cost to the Council of having to redo the whole plan process and protect the borough from planning by appeal; but at the political cost of having to do a volte face on the soundness of the local plan.
As an entirely local political party, this volte face could well be very costly, as they do not have a national set of political priorities to fall back on.
It will be very interesting to see what R4U's decision is going to be now that they are the party in political control of the borough. If anything, the situation in Uttlesford could be seen as an experiment in Localism writ large.
Personally, I will be watching the situation with interest - not least because my own Borough Council could well find itself in a very similar situation in a couple of years....
* Are Change UK still a thing?
** Well, not literally, our garden is mostly full of children's toys, but within walking distance of my house in any event.
*! Behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
*^ a political party created in 2011 out of a number of local residents groups. A brief history of R4U can be found on their website here
*£ In the summary of their policies, which can be accessed here
*" as quoted in the Planning Resource article linked below
Residents for Uttlesford has requested to speak at forthcoming local plan examination hearing sessions. The inspectors said clarification will be sought as to whether those speaking are representing the council or a local community group. ... The inspectors have requested that the council confirms its position on the submitted plan by 27 June. "If the council no longer supports key aspects of the plan it has submitted, the appropriate action would be to consider withdrawing that plan from examination," they said. Residents for Uttlesford councillor and newly elected leader John Lodge said the party was still considering its position on the local plan but would respond to the inspectors before 27 June.