After a period of reflection, we have now had time to compose a response to Hart’s astonishing decision to abandon the Local Plan consultation and set out what we think should happen to bring the Local Plan back on track. This has been sent to all councillors.
Readers may wish to copy a link to this page and send it to their ward councillor and add their own ideas on what should be done. A list of councillor contact details can be found here.
What should we think about Hart Council’s decision to call off the Local Plan consultation with only a day to go before it was due to close? Well, to misquote Churchill, this consultation has been a farce in a fiasco inside an omnishambles. Never has so little been achieved by so many with so much of our money.
This is but the latest entry in a catalogue of mismanagement and misjudgement.
Back in April 2015, Peter Village QC described Hart’s position as “hopeless” and precious little has changed since then. This abandoned consultation has not even covered the areas that he said should have been covered, namely, employment, retail, transport and infrastructure.
Now, let’s look at the timeline:
- In October, 2013, when the earlier version of the plan was rejected by the Planning Inspector, the council said:
“that while the council operates under the interim strategy, it is working on an updated Local Plan…. We expect to put this out for consultation early next year, and would look to submit it to an inspector next autumn ,”
- In April 2014, the plan was to have a resubmission plan ready for consultation in October 2015.
- In February 2015, the plan was to have a resubmission plan ready for Autumn 2015.
- As late as April last year, the council was insisting that they were still on track to deliver a Resubmission Plan by Autumn 2015, despite our warnings that the project was slipping.
- We are now in a position, according to the latest schedule, where the Resubmission plan is due in Autumn 2016, but this has to be in serious doubt given the failure of this consultation and the fact that the evidence base won’t be revised until Spring 2016 and Hart have to hold a Regulation 18 consultation on the draft Local Plan, and heaven knows why it is planned for the Summer, when many people will be on holiday.
It is difficult to come to a conclusion other than the project management is woeful.
We need also to look at the governance of the project. Power on the Local Plan Steering Group (LPSG) is concentrated in the hands of urban councillors who have presided over this mess.
|Cabinet Member for Planning (Chairman)||Stephen Parker (Con Fleet East)|
|The Leader of Council||Stephen Parker (Con Fleet East)|
|Cabinet Member for Housing||Stephen Gorys (Con – Odiham)|
|Chairman of Planning Committee||Simon Ambler (CCH – Crookham West and Ewshot)|
|Political Group Leaders||David Neighbour (Lib Dem – Yateley East)
James Radley (CCH – Crookham East)
Stephen Parker (Con – Fleet East)
Not only that, the quality of the deliverables to date is poor. By way of example, in January last year Hart commissioned a piece of work to test the new settlement and urban extension options. The published results of this work have not met the objectives set at the outset.
I have had many people send me Facebook messages, tweets and emails saying what a farce the process has been a shambles and a waste of time and money. One correspondent has even been moved to write a poem, saying they thought our leader has led us up the garden path and couldn’t even run a bath. In short the council is a laughing stock. Many people have also come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the reason the consultation has been called off is that the people were giving the ‘wrong answer’. There is no confidence in the council, the credibility of the whole Local Plan process is subterranean, with some complaining of “consultation fatigue”.
If the consultation is re-run at the end of January, it is extremely likely that parts of the new evidence base will be released during the consultation, thus meaning that the consultation will be run on the wrong evidence base, invalidating the results.
The Local Plan process is so far behind schedule that we are running the risk of Central Government stepping in and doing the Local Plan for us. Moreover, the Government is currently consulting on plans to remove the New Homes Bonus from councils that do not have a Local Plan, so this further failure may result in a hit to services or increases in council tax. So, it is clear we need a good Local Plan and quickly.
But before we can move forwards it is imperative that we fix the management and governance failings that have led us to this unhappy place. It is simply untenable for the current incumbents to carry on as if nothing has happened.
The changes we need are:
- Resignation of the entire LPSG from their positions to be replaced by a new group of senior councillors from a balance of rural and urban wards.
- I’m sorry to say it, but the cabinet member for planning and leader’s position is untenable after presiding over such a comedy of errors.
- Whoever authorised the change to the questions mid-way through the consultation within the “officer” side must at least be severely reprimanded.
- Hart need to appoint an experienced project manager to run the Local Plan project who should immediately review it and put together a realistic scope, objectives, deliverables, resource requirements, costs and timelines, publish it, and offer it for scrutiny by a recognised project assurance organisation
- Only when the revised evidence base (SHMA and Employment Land Review) has been published, should Hart run a new Regulation 18 consultation covering employment, retail, transport, infrastructure as well as housing distribution as per the advice from Peter Village QC. The consultation should be put together and run by a competent third party organisation.
- A standalone brownfield approach, covering all current brownfield sites in the SHLAA, the Stonegate Report and any new zones of opportunity identified in the call for sites should be added to the consultation as per the request of the 2,130 signatories of the WHH petition. It is simply not credible to set a “deliverable” criterion for brownfield sites when almost all of the green field sites subject to consultation were “not currently developable”. The council can’t have it one way for brownfield and another for greenfield sites. Many brownfield sites in the SHLAA/New Homes Booklet were “rejected” for apparently arbitrary reasons, they certainly did not appear to have more onerous constraints on them compared to those selected for consultation in Q6.
- The differences between the site capacities shown in the New Homes Booklet compared to those in the official evidence base in the SHLAA (see point 4 in this letter to councillors, dated 20 November 2015 and Appendix) need to be rectified.
- The process of the consultation needs to be simplified and improved, with the weighting system being resolved and published before the consultation starts.
- The risks of a new town and urban extensions should be properly laid out (including creating capacity to take 3,000 houses from Rushmoor and Surrey Heath and the infrastructure costs).
- All of the SHLAA sites should be offered for consultation in Q6, and the ranking approach changed to something more objective and able to be analysed across parishes such as “strongly oppose, oppose, support, strongly support”. It should be possible to pass comment without ranking sites that you don’t agree should be developed. It was particularly odd to see that the NHB rejected sites that had appeared in Neighbourhood plans.
- You might do well to review my suggested 5-point plan that I tried to put to council in the Summer, but my question was censored.
- The different infrastructure contribution regimes for different styles of development should be properly explained: a certain cabinet member was spreading misleading information about this during the recent consultation. My understanding is that only office conversions attract no S106/CIL whereas brownfield redevelopment is subject to the same contribution regime as green field development. It should also be explained that new homes in vacant office blocks attract council tax (and new homes bonus), which HDC retains, rather than business rates much of which is surrendered to the Government.
- There also needs to be more robust processes for verifying the identity of all those participating in the consultation, and proper rules set on who can and cannot comment: theoretically the consultation just abandoned could have been answered by babes in arms in Aberdeen which is clearly ridiculous.
Only root and branch change of process and personnel will restore confidence and give enough credibility to create a sporting chance of getting a good Local Plan on time.
Press release is available for download below, together with a carousel of pictures of our shot demo outside Hart Offices.