In a long awaited letter (dated 20 December 2019) published today (6 January 2020) the Wealden Local Plan Inspector has advised the Council that the Wealden Local Plan fails on the legal Duty to Cooperate (DtC). She has also found the evidence base informing the Council’s Habitat Regulation Assessment, in relation to the approach taken to the Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation (SAC), to be unjustified and unreasonable.
Following submission of the Local Plan in January 2019, the Inspector held initial examination hearing sessions in spring 2019 on strategic matters, including the Ashdown Forest, housing need and distribution. This followed a hiatus of almost two years, whereby any proposal not identified in the Plan would be considered (by Wealden District Council) to have an effect on the integrity of the Ashdown Forest SAC and could not be permitted. The Council’s approach was contrary to the advice of Natural England, the Governments statutory advising body on such matters, and attracted significant opposition.
The Inspector’s initial findings are very clear: the Council failed to constructively engage with neighbouring authorities on strategic matters including the Ashdown Forest, Pevensey Levels and Lewes Downs SACs, which has also led to a failure to accommodate the unmet housing needs of Eastbourne. In addition, she concluded that the Council failed to engage constructively with Natural England in respect of the impacts of important habitats and landscapes. The full findings can be found at: http://www.wealden.gov.uk/Wealden/Residents/Planning_and_Building_Control/Planning_Policy/Wealden_Local_Plan/Wealden_Local_Plan_Examination.aspx
The Inspector’s initial findings will be much welcomed by the development industry and professional consultants, who have long challenged the Council’s overly precautionary approach to development and its possible effect on the Ashdown Forest SAC. Her findings mean that the potential of many sites across the District can now be unlocked (once appropriate site assessment has been undertaken).
The Council has released a statement which indicates an acceptance of the Inspector’s findings, committing to publish a timetable for the preparation of a new Local Plan shortly; this would require the Council to withdraw their Plan from Examination, rather than waiting for formal and final findings from the Inspector.
This is in stark contrast to the approach currently being taken by nearby Sevenoaks District Council, which finds itself in a similar boat. After much wrangling, Sevenoaks has requested that their Inspector submit her final report detailing her findings on the DtC, so the situation there is yet to be resolved.
The Inspector’s findings, and the Council’s decision to withdraw the Plan, means that the Council no longer has an up-to-date Local Plan (the last full Local Plan being dated 1998). In addition, as a direct result of the Council’s position on the Ashdown Forest SAC to date, it has fallen significantly short of its five-year housing land supply requirement. As such, the ‘tilted balance’ now applies to all planning applications and appeals where any detrimental impacts on the integrity of European Protected Sites has been ruled out, ie. developments should be permitted as long as the pros outweigh the cons, and on the presumption that the proposal represents a sustainable development.
Katie Lamb, Director of Planning at DMH Stallard said:
“A major conclusion of the report is that Wealden also failed to engage constructively with five adjoining authorities in respect of cross-boundary matters, so this report will have significant implications for the neighbouring authorities whose own plans were frustrated by Wealden DC’s stance. Developers will be delighted that there is now clear potential for development sites in the District – and across Kent and Sussex, where there is equally strong need and demand - to be unlocked.”