Posted: Wed 9th Dec 2020

Updated: Wed 9th Dec

Inspectors hammer Wrexham Council Planning Department over LDP problems: “This isn’t the first step of a long journey, this should be the end of a long journey”

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This article is old - Published: Wednesday, Dec 9th, 2020

Wrexham’s Local Development Plan (LDP) is still alive following a tense meeting between the council’s planning officers and Welsh Government planning inspectors Melissa Hall and Sian Worden.

Officially known as the “Wrexham Local Development Plan 2013 – 2028”, the first attempt at an LDP failed back in 2012 due to planning inspector concerns over the level of housing provision proposed within it.

Over the past few years a revised document, LDP2, has been drawn up, with an initial consultation taking place in 2016 and the mammoth process ongoing since then.

Last month the planning inspectors wrote a highly critical letter to Wrexham Council detailing ‘very serious reservations’ on parts of the plan, prompting an ‘Exploratory Meeting’ this morning to discuss issues raised.

The well attended Zoom meeting opened with a specific exchange about figures given by Wrexham Council as part of the LDP’s evidence base, with a short debate if tables showed compound growth or not.

A Wrexham Council Housing Officer said if he “had the chance to write it again, in a different way. I’d love to take it” with the Inspector accepting the ‘clarification’ but effectively reiterating their point that they thought the data was unclear and did not correctly show compounding percentages.

The tone set, complete with a deferential “Ma’am” for good measure, the meeting progressed to address the letter sent by inspectors to Wrexham Council which was summarised as concerning ‘matters of accuracy, consistent consistency, errors and omissions’, specifically around gypsy and traveller site allocations.

The Inspector Melissa Hall said: “I think it’s reasonable to say that, based on the evidence we have seen so far, our view is that the allocation is not sound and and should not be in the plan.”

“We have assumed because of the concerns we’ve raised previously and your response to those concerns resulted in the same allocations coming forward, and that you don’t have another site that you can allocate. Is that is that correct?”

Chief Planning Officer Lawrence Isted replied “Yes” adding “We do not have a more acceptable site to bring forward.”

The inspector revealed that Wrexham Council had sent them a 33 page document on Monday evening and that the communication did not have appendices attached,  and as a result the inspectors pointed out they had not digested it.

Mr Isted said: “Myself and my officers are coming into this meeting with an open mind, we are open to undertake any work that you deem essential to facilitate the adoption of a sound plan.”

Apparently speaking about the document sent over with, as the inspector said “didn’t have the appendices attached”,  he added: “What we have done is carefully considered all the issues that have been raised by both the representatives and you the inspectors, and we’re ready to submit a comprehensive response that addresses all the factual and methodological issues that have been raised.”

A mysterious voice then seemed to say “no it doesn’t”. The inspectors pointed out they had not made that comment, and everyone on the Zoom call was reminded to mute microphones.

Mr Isted attempted to run through the submission in vague terms (as inspectors did not want planning merits discussed) including picking out a defence of duff data: “We accept that there are some errors, and I apologise for there being any errors, we had hoped there would be none. But they are very few in number. ”

Mr Isted wrapped up by talking about what the next steps should be in his view,  stating: “My feeling is, with any long journey, it starts with the first step.

“I think the first step would be for the council to formally submit this document to the examination”.

He asked for the move to allow a formal ‘narrowing of the gap’ of work required by attempting to resolve any ‘misunderstanding’.

After again offering apologies for errors, Mr Isted went on to suggest if such gaps could not be narrowed then methodology could be changed, putting forward a different scoring mechanism to then get different outcomes on any future re-running of process.

The inspectors were unimpressed and one bluntly replied: “What we don’t want to do is keep running the same process, and just going round and round in circles.

“This assessment has been run twice, three times if you count the second rerun assessment, and the outcome is still the same.”

Another inspector echoed the comments: “We don’t want to keep going round in circles.

“It seems to you have had two chances to do this study.

“You are saying that there are few errors,  you say that there are errors with 15 of the site and that is only 4% of the sites? Well, that is actually quite a lot.

“What those errors do, is they don’t convince us. We just do not think it is robust evidence. ”

The second inspector was even more critical: “Mr Isted said about this being the first step of a long journey, but this isn’t the first step of a long journey, this should be the end of a long journey.

“That’s what we are very, very anxious to achieve, to get the plan adopted.

“There comes a point that we need to say you have put forward all the evidence that you’re going to on that point, and if we are still miles apart, can can this document realistically move us forward in a timely fashion?”

Mr Isted appeared confident that the full submission including missing appendices could be sent to the inspectors today, and therefore appear on the LDP Portal by tomorrow, if the inspectors so wished.

The session went back to the question of accuracy, with the inspector challenging Mr Isted: “You are asking us to rely on evidence that is inaccurate, and whilst you’re saying it’s only a small, small percentage, that does call into question the reliability of other things in the plan, doesn’t it?

“If there are significant factual errors, then how can we rely on the rest of the assessment as being accurate? I think that’s that’s the issue for us.”

Mr Isted rejected that verdict and was keen for the council’s latest submission to be accepted, stating: “My point is I don’t think there are significant errors, and that’s a matter of judgment.

“What we’re doing in the documents is addressing each of those errors” – adding the ‘vast majority’  are ‘just factually incorrect’.

The most awkward part of an uncomfortable watch came when Mr Isted was looking to explain if the submission was looking to ‘effectively’ correct errors, rather than reopening assessments and updating the core documents.

The inspector tried to interject with a further question, but Mr Isted asked, “Can I finish?….. Would you mind if I finished the point?……. Can I finish the point?”, if Zoom had tumbleweed several would have passed before the response “You may” came back.

Mr Isted stated that the new submission contained details of a re-run of work to correct errors, however the inspector skewered that plan by stating: “The sites that were given in our letter were examples, they are not necessarily a full list of all of the errors that have been identified.

“You have gone through that letter and revisited those sites. But of course, there may be other sites with errors on that we’ve just not picked up in that letter” adding that re-running pieces of work could result in the LDP being in the same position as it is today but just with lots of time used up.

Apparently dead in the water, or as Mr Isted himself styled it later as being “in a boat in the middle of the ocean and grateful for whatever hand you are prepared to offer me”.

He added the local authority is “prepared to do whatever you think is necessary or essential to take the plan forward to adoption.”

With the inspectors appearing to look to Wrexham Council for solutions to the impasse, and not much usable coming forward, they put forward their own ideas pointing out that next year will see Wrexham Council embark on a new gypsy and traveller accommodation assessment.

Therefore the ‘need’ issue could change, and in the meantime private provision could meet any shortfall in demand with it noted that there ‘is no five year need’, and the forthcoming assessment could even see a reduction in need.

Mr Isted grabbed the hand from his boat, saying: “My thoughts generally are we will do whatever is necessary to adopt a sound plan, we will be led by you on that if you think that’s a viable option, we will grab whatever viable option is available”.

However it was also pointed out that “Welsh Government has supported our proposals” on gypsy and traveller sites, but described the possible way forward as ’eminently sensible’.

The meeting then discussed timings around the accommodation assessment and apparent positive noises from all parties that at least in principle it could be a solution that worked for all.

As the meeting wound down Mr Isted asked for clarity on the next steps due to ‘local controversy that has been played out in the press’ and requested a hint for timescales.

The inspector explained that it could be mid January before any consideration could be given to the council’s tardy submission this week, with consideration to what the response could be to follow that date.

Mr Isted requested at least an immediate letter of response from the inspectors detailing that formally, “because the lack of information will cause the local controversy to grow rather than be resolved” and “people may latch on to the idea that we are not allocating the Llay site, and that may not be what you are saying.”

The inspectors agreed that they would send such a letter, and reiterated that it would be mid January before any indication of what is next for the Local Development Plan will emerge.

Top pic: Mr Isted tuning into the Zoom.

 



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