Below is a statement by Peter Holt, chief executive of Uttlesford District Council, on the local authority’s efforts to draw up a Local Plan for our area.
I seem to have to write to Parish and Town Council colleagues rather more often with disappointing news than any of us enjoy – but hope you appreciate at least being kept in the loop, as I do genuinely value the role of your councils and the active interest you and your residents have in planning matters in particular. I am sorry to have to share that we are today announcing a pause to our current published local plan timetable.
This means that we are cancelling next week’s Local Plan Leadership Group [LPLG], and also cancelling the upcoming Local Plan Scrutiny Meeting (6 October), Cabinet (25 October), and Full Council (1 and 2 November). Having consulted with the Chairs of LPLG and Scrutiny, we will be arranging a joint meeting of those two for the last week of September/first week of October, so that we can take a paper to Councillors explaining the situation, setting out a proposed new timetable and process, and allowing proper scrutiny of the situation.
We have shared this announcement today with the public, and the Council Leader has said: “It cannot be overstressed how essential it is that our district’s next local plan succeeds in delivering what local people need in way of new and appropriate housing, as well as necessary infrastructure, while at the same time meeting the government’s requirement for housing numbers. The new plan needs to not only positively shape the future growth of our area, but also protect the unique local character of our beautiful and historic district.
“It was hoped that the council would be ready to publish the next local plan draft for review over the next month. I am sorry to have to share that there is more work to be done before that can happen.
“A draft local plan is far too important to rush, and I will settle for publishing nothing less than a document which demonstrates that the district’s draft policies will live up to the standards that our residents deserve, addresses the real infrastructure requirements, and will also meet the technical requirements of the government’s Planning Inspectors.
“Residents are aware that since 2019 UDC has been undertaking a significant improvement programme in its planning capability. To create better outcomes, we have already put in place a number of process and recent team changes, and it will take time for these to bear fruit. We will continue our work on it and will bring forward a new local plan timetable over the coming weeks.
“Notwithstanding the frustration a delay may bring – and I wish to thank everyone who is working so hard on it – we have to get this right. To push forward with an incomplete or incompletely evidenced plan would be reckless. We have a committed team of professional officers and a passionate group of councillors from all parties providing input, oversight and any necessary challenge to the process and who continue to be dedicated to delivering the best for our area.”
Having a local plan is vital for a district, as it provides the strategic framework for determining sensible growth in housing and employment land in our area over the long term, and taking into account all relevant factors such as our unique local character, geography, demographics, heritage, environment and infrastructure. Without a local plan in place providing this strategic oversight, each local authority in considering individual planning applications faces a ‘tilted balance’ in favour of the applicant.
Uttlesford District Council has been working on a new 20-year local plan since 2020, when the previous attempt was withdrawn following critical feedback from the Planning Inspectors. This process has included extensive public engagement, for which the council won an award from the Royal Town Planning Institute.
The next major stage of the local plan is the publication of a detailed draft, and the beginning of a major round of public consultation and engagement. This ‘Regulation 18’ stage will see the detailed draft include both a clear statement of strategic approach, many chapters detailing specific policies (such as on climate change, transport, flooding and so on), and options on site allocations to meet the binding target set by the government of identifying land on which 14,000 new homes can be built in the district over the next 20 years, as required by the government.
Some nine to 12 months after this upcoming Regulation 18 stage will see the publication and consultation of the final proposed local plan (the Regulation 19 stage) before, in due course, the local plan is submitted to government for consideration by an Inspector, including a fresh round of public hearings.
Each of these stages involves extensive public engagement and consultation, all designed to help improve the drafts through to adoption of a final local plan. It also involves a huge amount of work from planning professionals and alongside that, oversight and scrutiny from elected councillors. This democratic accountability includes Uttlesford’s full council of 39 elected members voting whether to proceed at each key stage, including the upcoming Regulation 18.
For some months, the council has been intending to begin the major round of Regulation 18 public consultation and engagement on 3 November 2022, preceded by a round of formal meetings within the authority, all open to the public and streamed live, including the Local Plan Leadership Group (21 September), Local Plan Scrutiny Committee (6 October), Cabinet (25 October), and Full Council (1 and 2 November). These meetings are now being cancelled and will be replaced by a joint meeting of Local Plan Leadership Group and Local Plan Scrutiny. At that meeting, councillors will be briefed on the matters in more detail and presented with a new proposed timetable and action plan. Once agreed, the new timetable will be delivered upon, and progress against it will be overseen and scrutinised regularly by councillors until the new round of meetings is arranged and a new draft local plan is published and considered.
I should like to profusely and profoundly apologise for this situation. Please be assured of our full and active commitment to remedy the matter at the earliest opportunity, and get this hugely important process back on track.