Public Question Time
This item is to receive any Public Questions: two were received by the deadline.
The Chair reported that two questions had been received and invited Mr Colin Randerson to present his question to Council. Mr Randerson thanked the Chair and Council for the opportunity to attending the meeting and read out his question.
“Given that the Council proposed changes to policies relating to affordable housing numbers on the basis of pressure from a small number of private developers, but has made no meaningful changes to the LDP as a result of the public consultation, where some sites received over 200 individual objections, do you believe this demonstrates a process which values the concerns of its residents and represents them accordingly?”
Councillor Bithell responded by saying that at the outset, it was important to stress that the changes that had been made to the Plan following the Examination hearing sessions known as Matters Arising Changes (MACs) had not been made by the Council but were proposed by the Inspector and had been agreed to by the Council in July of this year, in order to facilitate a public consultation on them. No changes had been proposed to original percentages for the delivery of affordable housing, and the only change to the affordable housing policy wording was to reflect a change requested by the Inspector to clarify that the percentages sought were a target, rather than a starting point.
The central purpose of the Examination was for the Inspector to consider the soundness of the Plan as submitted and it was not the remit of the Inspector to improve the Plan, or to change it simply based on the volume of objections to it or a particular site or policy. Part of the Inspector’s assessment would be with reference to the Council’s evidence base to support the Plan policies and proposals. This applied equally to representations made by objectors where the responsibility on objectors was to submit objections supported by evidence which questioned the plan or a site’s soundness. It was for the Inspector to judge and the rationale for how she had considered these soundness issues would be contained in her report, which had yet to be received.
Both the Council and the Inspector were required to consider what objectors had said when representations were made, but they were not required to simply accept what was said. This was a matter of planning judgement which had been applied both by the Council and then separately and independently by the Inspectors. That was the present Development Plan process as prescribed by Welsh Government’s Development Plans Manual. In part the question posed invited the Council to comment on aspects of this process that were not in its control, and it was not appropriate therefore to expect the Council to comment on how the Inspector had conducted the examination.
The questioner submitted written representations at the Deposit consultation stage which were considered by officers and where the Council agreed to recommended responses which did not alter or change the plan. As with the response to question 2 which followed, this questioner then submitted written evidence to the LDP Examination and also appeared in person and made his points to the Inspector. This evidence should also have been focussed on addressing the soundness of the site in question as that was the relevant matter for the Inspector to consider. If no change to the site’s allocation came from the Examination in the form of a Matters Arising Change (MAC) relating to the site, then the clear inference from that was that the Inspector also considered that the issues raised did not challenge the plan or site’s soundness. In contrast where the Inspector did have concerns about the housing element of the Warren Hall site, she had made a change.
Finally, this site was also considered to be a sustainable allocation at the UDP public Inquiry where the inspector then recommended its allocation. The site had been reconsidered through the LDP process and Examination, and no evidence had been presented to counter this view, either for this site, or the others allocated in the LDP.
Mr Randerson said his question raised concerns and asked a supplementary question as to why no changes were made, no matter how many objections were received, following the consultation. What was the point of the public consultation, which cost a lot of money, if no attention or changes were made to any of the responses from the residents? He asked were no changes made due to pressure from developers.
Councillor Bithell felt that this had been covered within the response but would respond to Mr Randerson in writing.
Mr David Rowlinson read out the following question: -
“The Local Development Plan (LDP) is now seven years late. A public consultation took place which involved the planning department considering and rejecting a huge number of public objections over 200 at some sites). No meaningful changes were made to the plan. There has been a detailed inspection resulting in impassioned hearings but resulting in only minor technical changes to the plan, partially driven by Inspectors being powerless to suggest improvements to the plan. Since the posting of the LDP several years ago, there has been no opportunity for elected council members to influence the outcome of the plan despite the repeated concerns raised by their constituents. How much has the LDP cost since the plan was initially shared as part of the public consultation; and does the council feel this represents an optimised and good use of public funds, given the reluctance of the planning department to make changes or improvements to the LDP?
Councillor Bithell responded saying thatit was important, at the outset, to remind the Council on some of the key reasons for preparing the Local Development Plan in the first place:
· The Local Development plan was a statutory plan. The Council had to produce one;
· The LDP would provide an up to date policy framework in order to make informed decision on planning applications;
· The LDP would support economic ambition and growth and deliver jobs in line with Flintshire’s National Growth Area status;
· The LDP would provide housing in sustainable locations to meet the needs of this growth, including a significant amount of affordable housing;
· Adoption of the LDP would prevent the continued stream of planning applications for speculative housing development where any Member’s ward was vulnerable due to not having an up-to-date adopted development plan in place.
The LDP was in its final stages approaching adoption. It was common practice for LDPs to be adopted into their plan period and the plan could only become operational once adopted.
The LDP had been through all of its statutory stages including those that were the responsibility of the Council prior to its submission for Examination, and then those that were under the sole control of Planning and Environment Decision Wales (PEDW) and the appointed Inspectors. It was the Council, as a whole, who made decisions on the progress of the development plan up to submission, informed and advised by the recommendation of officers.
The Council had considered and agreed to progress the Plan on two separate occasions – firstly when it agreed to publish the Deposit LDP for consultation on the 23 July 2019 - no Members voted against; and then when it agreed to the recommended responses to the public representations received, and to submit the plan for public Examination, at its meeting held on 22nd September 2020 – no Members voted against.
Welsh Government (WG) advised that a Council should not submit its plan for Examination unless it considered the plan to be sound and capable of being adopted as once submitted, control passed from the Council to the appointed Inspectors.
The role of the appointed Inspectors was to consider whether the plan as submitted was sound and capable of adoption – their role was not to seek to improve the plan. This was made clear at the Pre-Hearing Meeting and was reflected in the Inspector’s note of the meeting. That meeting was attended by 120 participants including the questioner.
Simply because a number of people made objections to a site did not mean that the Council had to either automatically accept those objections or make a change to the Plan. The key requirement in objecting was to show, with evidence, how the plan or any specific site was not sustainable or sound. Representations submitted following the Deposit LDP consultation were considered by officers and the recommended responses agreed by the Council – in the Council’s view these did not raise issues that challenged the soundness of the plan.
Further representations were submitted as written and verbal evidence to the LDP Examination in relation to this site (and others). These should also have been focussed on addressing the soundness of the site in question as that was the relevant matter for the Inspector to consider. Indeed, the hearing sessions held were not solely to hear objectors as the Inspector heard from all interested parties including those promoting sites allocated in the Plan. If no change to the site’s allocation came from the Examination in the form of a Matters Arising Change (MAC), then the clear inference from that was that the Inspector also considered that the issues raised did not challenge the plan or site soundness.
Whilst the full cost of the production of the LDP would be calculated once the Plan was adopted, the main cost elements to date were as follows:
· Policy Team annual staffing costs (from 2022/23 budget)£318,698.00
· Evidence base preparation (whole process to date) £374,000.00
· Examination Inspectors Fees to date £53,122.87
· Examination Programme Officer costs to date £29,812.50
The main point for Members to acknowledge was that the Council had no option but to produce a development plan as it was a statutory requirement, meaning that it had to expend public funding to resource the process. The Council had budgeted for that but had actually saved a considerable amount from holding the Examination in an entirely virtual way, which had also had the benefit of allowing greater public involvement and participation. The savings had been to the extent that the financial reserves to support the LDP adoption would be returned to the corporate centre, thereby assisting the Council’s overall budgetary position.
The plan was at such an advanced stage now that all that was awaited was the Inspector’s report, whose recommendations in respect of plan soundness and adoption were legally binding on the Council. There was no option to debate any specific aspect of the plan at this stage – adoption was of the plan as a whole.
Mr. Rowlinson appreciated the lengthy response and agreed with many of the points made on the purpose of the LDP and the thorough way in which it had been carried out, especially allowing people to join virtually to contribute. He asked a supplementary question on clarification he was seeking on a breakdown of the numbers between the preparation of the plan, prior to the public consultation, and the cost excluding the actual examination costs since that point. It seemed that there would be significant costs with going through the motions on the plan when there hadn’t been any actual changes to the plan which would indicate that it was poor value. He felt that the response focused on the soundness rather than the ability to improve the plan or make it an optimized plan for the public. The fact that no meaningful changes were made to the plan following the public consultation would suggest that it did not represent good value on appropriate process. What was the point of carrying out that public consultation if the views expressed would not form part of shaping the plan? For clarification he asked what costs were incurred since the publication for the public inspection minus the actual examination costs which he accepted were part of the process.
Councillor Chris Bithell agreed to respond to the supplementary question in writing.