Concerns over the "legal compliance" of the St Albans strategic local plan, says inspector

Out-Law News | 08 Sep 2016 | 12:36 pm | 2 min. read

Following an initial assessment of St Albans Strategic Local Plan, a planning inspector has highlighted some concerns in relation to the duty to co-operate, housing targets and the infrastructure provision.

In August 2016 St Albans City and District Council submitted its draft strategic local plan (SLP) for public examination. The SLP sets out the Council's development plans and policies for the district until 2031.

The planning inspector has sent a letter (2-page / 67 KB PDF) to the Council laying out a number of initial concerns and said that "there is a significant matter relating to legal compliance that needs to be addressed now."

The letter stated that the inspector is concerned "whether or not the duty to co-operate has been met.... based on the submission and evidence that [the inspector] read (from example nearby LPAs) [the inspector] is concerned that the duty has not been met.  Councils are required "to demonstrate evidence of having made every effort to co-operate with regard to issues with crossboundary impacts." Failure to satisfy this requirement can lead to the Council withdrawing the local plan.

Other concerns included the justification of the housing provision, "for example the reasoning behind the identification of the housing figure of 436 dwellings a year; the relationship between that figure and the full objectively assessed housing need; and the value of the strategic housing market assessment (including the definition of the housing market area). There are similar concerns regarding the justification and effectiveness of the Council’s approach to economic prosperity and employment."

The letter went on to say that "in terms of the delivery of the proposed growth, there is insufficient clarity and detail regarding the associated infrastructure that is required, how it will be provided and what the consequent implications may be in terms of viability."

The funding and costs for a number of large-scale projects had not been detailed which also raised further concerns regarding viability.  

The inspector has not come to a conclusive decision yet as to whether or not the SLP is legally compliant and there is a possibility further matters may be identified. An initial hearing session will be held to test the evidence.

Planning expert Susanne Andreasen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "The duty to cooperate often comes up as an issue in local plan examinations, in particular in relation to the distribution of unmet housing needs, and a number of plans have been found not to meet legal requirements because the council had failed to comply with the duty." 

"As a result, the duty has been criticised for being ineffective and a constraint to local authorities in their plan making. Proposals for reform to strengthen the duty have included requiring councils to enter into memorandums of understanding to address housing need and including provision for early review in Local Plans to help overcome the difficulty in cooperating with other councils whose plan preparation is at a different stage."

Helen Stewart, also of Pinsent Masons, said: "St Albans is the latest in a series of authorities which have fallen foul of the duty to co-operate.  The duty was introduced to fill the void left when regional planning fell from grace, but without a concrete requirement to agree, the duty's efficacy has been queried.  This decision will serve as a reminder that authorities must work to the spirit of the obligation to co-operate or face unwelcome delays in the progress of their local plan."