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Central Bedfordshire Development Strategy

The appointed Inspector, Mr Brian Cook, this week (18th February) issued a letter setting out his conclusions on key matters for the Examination.

The letter certainly makes interesting reading. It will be of critical importance to the progress of adopting new planning policy in Central Bedfordshire and may have wider implications for plan-making.

In summary, the letter highlights that due to a failure to comply with the “Duty to Cooperate” the Inspector must recommend non-adoption of the Plan. The Hearing Sessions will not continue to their next stage and the Council is recommended to withdraw the Plan. This means key issues, such as debates over the soundness of the objective assessment of housing need, will not be heard.

Optimis Consulting has made representations on behalf of various clients throughout the preparation of the Development Strategy for Central Bedfordshire and participated in the Examination Hearing sessions earlier this month.

The main points we have taken from the letter are that the Inspector accepts the Housing Market being planned for (Paragraphs 38 and 73) but that this in itself, while reflecting the effect of the Duty to Cooperate, has not led to serious consideration of how the area’s strategic priorities will be met or consideration of specific and deliverable policy choices. Principally, this relates to unmet housing needs arising in Luton Borough.

In effect, the work on the latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) only leaves the Council in the same position as to its understanding of the relationship with its neighbours as it had when previously preparing a Joint Core Strategy (JCS) with Luton that was previously abandoned in 2011 (Paragraph 41). In not seriously considering the implications of the relationship with Luton in making a plan for Central Bedfordshire, the Council has “simply taken forward” the parts of the JCS that related to Central Bedfordshire and relevant parts of the Central Bedfordshire (North) Core Strategy adopted in 2009 (paragraph 54).

Key issues for the Inspector in reaching this view are that options to meet all of Luton’s unmet needs in the Housing Market Area were not tested (paragraphs 38 and 50). More fundamentally, there was not enough time between the publication of the SHMA and publication of the Development Strategy to seriously consider these findings and how the Strategy could meet an appropriate level of Luton’s needs (paragraph 49). This is despite the fact relevant Sustainability Appraisal and site assessment work was ongoing beforehand (paragraph 32). The Inspector considers that the Strategy was determined before the ‘sign-off’ meeting of the SHMA findings (paragraph 31 and 49).

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to deal with unmet housing needs in Luton is not seen as a sufficient mechanism to resolve any unmet need as it is not a clear part of policy and was not signed by all parties – and critically Luton – upon submission of the Strategy. The Inspector feels that ultimately the MoU points back to the fact Central Bedfordshire should have tested a higher level of growth in this plan based on meeting increased needs of Luton across the Housing Market Area (paragraphs 48 and 55-56).

It also appears fundamental that in 2013 there was already evidence from an advisory meeting with the Planning Inspectorate that this work needed to be prepared broadly on the basis outlined above in order to plan effectively for Luton and Central Bedfordshire (paragraph 30).

At paragraph 50, the Inspector acknowledges that many of his concerns go to soundness rather than the Duty in itself (which is not a Duty to agree).

It is accepted that it is a matter of judgement for an independent examiner to determine whether the Duty has been complied with. Other plans have been withdrawn following similar findings (including Aylesbury Vale). It is also the case that the Duty to Cooperate cannot be rectified once a plan has been submitted.

This precludes the testing of alternative options and subjecting the Plan to updated Sustainability Assessment in the course of the Examination. However, given the historic cooperation between Central Bedfordshire and Luton in identifying and bringing forward key locations for growth some may feel the distinction is more blurred in this case.

The Council has taken legal advice with a view to call for a judicial review of the process. Support for this process will be sought at a meeting of the Full Council next week.

We await the next steps in due course with interest and are happy to answer questions for existing and prospective clients.

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