A second Essex authority, after Basildon, will issue a response to the Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities’ (DLUHC) Michael Gove, after he named them as one of seven councils in England flagged for its ‘consistent under-performance’ in delivering on housing and development targets.
Uttlesford District Council (UDC) held an extraordinary meeting on January 17 to discuss its draft response, which sets out its position on progress to adopting an up-to-date local plan. This would emphasise the effort which has already been made to ‘de-risk’ the process.
Late local plan
UDC’s struggle to adopt an up-to-date local plan has been well-documented. Local authorities are legally required to present a new draft plan every five years; Uttlesford had draft plans rejected in 2014 and 2019. As a result, its current adopted plan dates from 2005.
The government has established a deadline for all councils to have updated local plans adopted by Summer 2025. But first they must comply with Gove’s request to meet a 12-week deadline to provide a modified timeline or Local Development Scheme (LDS). This will detail a comprehensive time frame in which to meet mandated targets.
UDC’s leader, Councillor Petrina Lees (Residents for Uttlesford, Elsenham and Henham) noted in the council agenda ahead of the January 17 meeting that the authority’s LDS had only been agreed upon and adopted in October 2023.
The public consultation period for its draft local plan had ended on December 18, only one day before Gove issued his letters with notification of the 12-week LDS deadline.
Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting at the time of Gove’s speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on December 19, Cllr Lees said that the Secretary of State’s address was “all very perplexing”, as officers of both UDC and DLUHC had been liaising regularly concerning the local plan and the council’s proposed delivery timeline.
In the authority’s formal response, Lees asks Gove to consider that “regular and supportive meetings have been held between (DLUHC) officials and our council officers. Therefore, the intervention letter was a surprise”.
The covering note published alongside UDC’s agenda for the January 17 meeting continues by noting that “the planning system is weighted in favour of developers, with the majority of applications being approved.
“The government, instead of seeking to create even more planning permissions on top of the many thousands of unbuilt ones which this council, and many others, already have, should be strongly requested to introduce measures requiring much faster construction of the housing already permitted, which councils currently have no power to do.”
Cllr Lees states that local councils are the required providers of social housing in the UK yet are “powerless to build on any scale”.
In her covering note, she writes: “The 13,680 new housing numbers required from Uttlesford’s Local Plan by the DLUHC, bears no relation to the infrastructure constraints and challenges in the district, such as the scarcity of water, grossly inadequate sewerage systems polluting our chalk streams, pressure on roads, a motorway which bypasses the district, no rail service to the largest settlements, insufficient NHS GP and dentistry provision, no A&E hospital, no full police station or tertiary education, medieval settlements and constraining topographies and valued landscapes.”
In the draft response itself, Lees points to the authority’s lack of staff and previous reliance on short-term contracted staff as being partly responsible for a degree of ‘slippage’ within the proposed time frame, which she says has now been mitigated by attracting ‘high calibre’ team members permanently.
The covering note continues: “The current draft Local Plan is evidence-based and has been prepared without anyof the behind-the-scenes political fixes, that owe more to advancing local party-political interests than to best serving the interests of all residents of the district.
“Notwithstanding all this, Uttlesford’s draft Local Plan is a genuine, sincere and professional effort to balance the constraints, none of which the council is directly responsible for, or can mandate or fund their resolution, or largely require developers and landowners to fund, and to take back control of planning for our locally-accountable, cross-party Planning Committee.”
Uttlesford finds itself in the same position as many other local authorities – of being required by government to build more new housing than they believe their area can comfortably manage.
Article includes information from the Local Democracy Reporting Service by Emma Doyle