High Peak Local Plan - Week 1

15th Jan 2015

From our own correspondent, Planning Officer, Andrew Wood

   "A Local Plan Examination is a piece of theatre that is only of interest to the cast. For those of us around the table it's a combination of a very technical process, analysing numbers and the wording of policies to see how well, or badly, they reflect our interests; and also a role-playing exercise. The housebuilders make no bones about their motives to extract more development land, environmental and community groups make counter-arguments, and the local authority sits like a rabbit in the headlights, defending the years of work that have already gone in to trying to hit the right compromise between competing demands. To a member of the public wandering in to observe the process, it will seem exclusive and arcane: no wonder people often feel that planning is done to them rather than for them.

In recent years this theatre has taken on a new and depressing dimension, in that central Government looms large, an absentee elephant in the room, and the main requirement of the Plan, above all else, is compliance with their diktat, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF); and to be more specific, the number of new houses to be planned for. This further stifles the ability of local authorities and local communities to plan for the places they wish to create.

This sets the scene for the first week of the High Peak Local Plan Examination. The Council opens proceedings by describing the unique geography of the Borough and the work it has done to produce the plan. The developers then begin to dig away at the aspects of the Local Plan they believe constrain their freedoms to build what they want, where they want. In most of the hearing sessions that follow, Friends of the Peak District is the only voice arguing that more specific constraints are needed, that affordable housing should take priority over market housing, and that the character and function of settlements and the countryside are at least as important as the need for housing.

On a positive note, we seem to have passed a few hurdles that might have hijacked the Local Plan process, as has happened in other authorities. Some Local Plans have been sent back to the drawing board after the first couple of hearings of their Public Examination, resulting in further damage to communities' confidence in the planning process. I don't sense that this is going to happen in High Peak, which is good news because the Borough is desperate to have an adopted Local Plan, and any further delays would be disastrous.

As often happens, though, the most interesting conversations at these events take place off the record, in the wings. For example, "the government doesn't actually care about increasing housebuilding or tackling the housing crisis, it just wants to give the impression of doing....." I tend to agree, and the fact that local authorities are under such pressure to allocate greenfield housing sites and review their Green Belts on the basis of such a hollow national objective is something we need to fight tooth and nail".