The subject of this column on quite a few occasions over the last couple of years has been the development and adoption of the Local Plan which is the strategic planning document that will shape the way Hartlepool develops over the next 10 to 15 years.
It has been a long and complex process to draw up the proposals for the plan which has been through a number of different stages. We even had to backtrack and re-do a large part of the process because of the changes in the national planning policies.
What we thought would be the final stage of the process took place at the end of January and into early February which was the examination in public, conducted by a planning inspector on behalf of the Government.
The plan passed but the one area that he deemed to be undeliverable was the provision of a site for gypsies and travellers.
This has resulted in the inspector suspending the hearing process for six months in order for the council to address this, a piece of work that is already underway.
This delay is more than a little bit frustrating for many reasons, not least that it adds another half a year to a process that has been on-going for nearly three years already. As is the norm with this Government, they moved the goalposts during the game and only introduced the need for councils to include specific sites for gypsies and travellers as we were coming to the end of our consultation processes.
We do not have a big need for such sites in Hartlepool and the only site that is frequented by the travelling community is the site near B&Q. So everyone thought it sensible to formalise this as we were required to do so by this process.
Understandably, the owners of the site objected and the Inspector deemed the site undeliverable. Consequently, the council has been out to ask people to put forward potential sites that we could allocate and unsurprisingly, not one has been put forward.
This now means that the council has to bring forward one of its own sites for allocation and I’ll guarantee this will lead to all sorts of problems and protests whatever site is chosen. Sadly, there is nothing the council can do about it.
The Local Plan, once adopted, will set the strategic direction for the town for the next decade.
Decisions about what is in it have been taken throughout the process by councillors. Cabinet members have ultimately decided on the content of the plan but members of the planning committee have also had a major input.
This is quite correct because it is councillors who are, after all, elected to lead the town forward on behalf of its residents. Why then, were no councillors called to give evidence at the examination in public of the Local Plan?
Instead he grilled the council’s planning officers on the whys and wherefores.
This is all well and good and our officers will give their professional opinions but there were times when the cabinet went against our officer advice and is was often down to reasons brought forward by the public during the consultations and yet we weren’t given the opportunity to explain ourselves.
It raises a lot of questions around the actual point of spending two and a bit years getting input from a large proportion of the public when one man can come along and change everything.
The final major concern I now have is that the council is in a state of limbo with regards to having planning policies in place. It can be argued that the existing Local Plan is outdated and because we don’t have a new one in place, there is very little the council can do to prevent developers coming forward on any site with planning applications.
These applications would go to the planning committee to make decisions and this committee is not supposed to act in a political manner. Instead it acts in a quasi-judicial manner and makes decisions based on planning policies.
I can see a situation that because we don’t have any up to date policies in place, the Committee will be forced to make decisions based on what they think is the right reasons for that particular site with no sound evidence to base them on.
In other words, the committee would be forced to make political decisions, which would be hard to defend in any appeal.
It leaves us with the bizarre situation that what should be a political decision in setting the strategic direction for the development of an area can be usurped by a professional planner and therefore leave us in a situation in which individual planning decisions, which should be quasi-judicial, will end up being political decisions because there are no policies in place on which councillors can rely.
The whole process is unwieldy and has huge flaws in it and most worryingly, despite our best efforts to the contrary, appears to make the valuable input from the public less and less meaningful.