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East Staffordshire local plan examination postponed after inspector raised concerns about housing and sustainability

A hearing into East Staffordshire Borough Council's local plan has been adjourned by the inspector, after concerns were raised about the Council's assessment of housing need, its selection of development sites and its sustainability appraisal.

The Council submitted the East Staffordshire local plan (ESLP) for examination in April. Following the first four days of examination hearings, inspector Brian Sims issued his interim findings (8-page / 135 KB PDF) on the legal compliance and soundness of the ESLP on 11 November.

The inspector said evidence provided by the Council was likely to lead to a conclusion that it had met its duty to co-operate with surrounding local authorities on strategic matters and that the overall spatial strategy presented in the ESLP was "likely to be found to be sound".

However, Sims said that further justification was required for the Council's assessment that 11,648 new homes were required in the borough by 2031, at a rate of 613 dwellings per annum (dpa). The inspector questioned the methodology by which the Council had calculated its housing figures, suggesting that it might be appropriate to assume a return to pre-recession trends during the plan period and criticising the lack of clarity as to how employment projections had been used.

Representations had been received suggesting annual requirements of between 660 and 880 dpa, noted Sims, concluding that "on the evidence available, it appears that, at the very least, the higher figure of 630 dpa should be taken as the objectively assessed housing need".

The inspector requested clarification of the process followed by the Council in selecting several sites for development and suggested that "further consideration should be given to whether the choice of allocations should be widened over a range of size and capacity to offset an apparent reliance upon a relatively small number of large strategic sites".

Sims also said that "significant further work" was required on the Council's sustainability assessment (SA). The inspector noted that consultation on a revised SA had not been completed by the time the ESLP was submitted for examination, meaning "the ESLP as submitted is not legally compliant in that aspect of procedure". Sims raised concerns about inconsistencies between site assessments; about the lack of explanation for the selection of sites for appraisal; and that no explanation had been given for the use of different sustainability criteria in the SA and the ESLP.

In relation to the production of any further revised SA in response to his comments, the inspector said "it is essential that it cannot be regarded as seeking retrospectively to justify modifications to the ESLP for adoption, but must clearly demonstrate, by way of an explicit audit trail, the reasons for the judgements reached at each stage of the evolution of the ESLP".

Recommending the postponement of hearing sessions, the inspector said: "it would not be in the best public interest to proceed with two more weeks of hearings on policies, allocations and omission sites before it can be concluded whether the housing requirement is justified or should be increased above 630 dpa, especially when [the Council] has accepted that, if further sites are required, the entire site selection process will need to be revisited."

In a statement issued following the release of the inspector's interim report, the Council said: "None of these issues should stop the plan eventually moving forward to adoption as we believe that the additional work required by the inspector is to clarify points raised during the first week ... The Council's view is to move forward quickly which we are confident we can do to ensure that hearings are returned to as quickly as possible."

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