Planning has been one of the largest local issues, by far, that residents have raised with me since my election in 2017. The blunt reason is that, for many years in our area, far more houses have been built than should have happened and decisions weren’t taken early enough to prevent that.
There’s obviously been lots of discussion around planning in recent months, particularly with the Inspector’s final report and my letter to the Department for Communities requesting further changes.
As a result, many residents have asked for a clear, up-to-date explanation of where we are and what happens next, so I wanted to write this post to provide my best understanding.
What’s the ultimate problem on planning in North East Derbyshire?
The core issues on planning in North East Derbyshire all stem from a period between c2008 and 2018, when the previous District Council, voted out of office in 2019, made two key mistakes:
- they didn’t put in place a Local Plan (the document which says how an area will development in the future) in a timely fashion – meaning that North East Derbyshire’s planning rules became old, less enforceable, and less capable of fighting off speculative planning applications which might otherwise have been rejected – and;
- they then eventually proposed a draft Local Plan (which would put in place that new framework), which had too many houses and wanted to build them in the wrong places (including in the Green Belt) to try to hit that target.
As a result, we have effectively been hit with a double whammy of problems that have built up over the course of a decade. Too many speculative planning applications have got through in recent years that really shouldn’t have done (by my count, it’s at least 1,000 houses which have either been built, or are approved and are about to be). On top of that, when efforts finally (and belatedly) got underway to put this Plan in place, back in 2017, the initial document contained the wrong proposals and just wasn’t where most of us would have started.
This all culminated in 2018, when North East Derbyshire was one of just fifteen Councils in the entire country which the Government said were failing from a planning perspective because they hadn’t sorted out their Local Plan. It really was a complete mess.
What have we been trying to do in order to rectify it since 2019?
Our strategy over recent years has been two-fold: (1), try to fight off inappropriate planning applications wherever they pop up and, (2), to try to improve the sub-optimal draft Local Plan, as part of the long process it necessarily has to go through, in advance of the Council’s ultimate decision on whether to adopt it.
On (1), we’ve won some of these and been less successful on others. Proposals have been fought off, so far, to build hundreds of houses in North Wingfield (Little Morton Road) as well as a possible additional development in Wingerworth (Swathwick Lane). And, along with your Councillors, I’ve distributed tens of thousands of leaflets, held meetings, spoken at an appeal, and tried, where I can, to help fight off the worst of these excessive applications.
Additionally, I’ve tried to help the new Council, voted into office in 2019, improve the draft Local Plan so that (1) it contains more appropriate proposals to enable (2) it to be adopted to reduce the likelihood of future speculative development happening.
So, where is the Local Plan at the moment?
It’s at the end of a very long, four-year process, from the initial draft to, now, the cusp of a final decision being made on it.
The most recent stage happened in July 2021 when an independent Planning Inspector confirmed that she had deemed it “sound” – ie that it aligns with national planning policy. That was the end of an 8-stage process of drafting, reviewing, consulting, changing and amending – a process which was started under the old District Council and has been continued under the current one.
What was wrong with the Plan at the start?
The two major issues with the Local Plan draft, offered in early 2017 by the then District Council, were the following:
- That the Council loaded a target for housebuilding up to 2034 that was higher than necessary. They decided that the District should take 6,600 houses when they could likely have agreed something which was less.
- That, as a consequence, the Council required building on multiple Green Belt sites in Dronfield, Eckington and Killamarsh – which many of us do not think were actually needed.
So, has the plan been fixed?
On the first issue of the target being too high, the sheer number of speculative applications that have gotten through in recent years (wrongly, in my view) mean that this target is likely to be hit anyway. So, in a way, that issue has receded in importance.
On the second point of the Green Belt sites, we’ve also made some good progress, too. We have managed, thanks to the fantastic work and campaigning of local residents, to remove over 600 proposed houses from the draft Plan in their entirety in Coal Aston, Dronfield and Eckington. That is real progress and I’m hugely pleased we have managed to take this significant step forward.
However, four sites (two in Dronfield and two in Killamarsh) remain, and the focus over the last two years has been on convincing the independent Planning Inspector to take these remaining sites out. The consultation which many of you got involved in last Winter was the final real chance to do that. You can see my submission here: https://www.lee4ned.com/sites/www.lee4ned.com/files/2021-08/Submission to Inspector – Winter 2021.pdf.
Unfortunately, the Planning Inspector confirmed in July that she wasn’t taking any more sites out. So, we have a draft Plan which is better than it was but is still problematic on these remaining Green Belt sites.
So, if the Plan contains Green Belt sites we don’t like, why not just remove them from that Plan?
We absolutely wish we could.
Yet, the Local Plan process – which all Councils across the country have to go through – has specific stages where the Council has clear control over what is in it. There are also stages where the Council can’t just change the document as it wishes. Instead, it requires the approval of an independent Planning Inspector before any changes can be made.
The primary time when a Council influences what goes in the Plan is at the start – they get to write the first draft. After that, they can’t just change easily things without the approval of the Planning Inspector.
From North East Derbyshire’s perspective, the initial draft was proposed under the old District Council four years ago – that was our major chance to get this right. Since then, the new District Council has been trying (as we all have) to convince the Inspector to make changes to this Plan since 2019. We’ve managed to get some (the removal of some of the Green Belt sites), but not all, of what we want.
So why not just bin it and start again?
This was looked at extensively when the new Council took over in 2019.
The challenge with this approach would mean that the Council would have to go back and start the whole process again. And, because it is so long ago that the process started, the evidence base would need to be redone, followed by the long process of review and consultation and then, ultimately, the Inspector would have to decide whether the new version was sound. That’s a good 2 – 4 years to do.
The one benefit of being relatively late in the process of trying to adopt a Local Plan has meant that North East Derbyshire has had a small amount of protection against speculative planning applications in the last year or so. Effectively, because the Plan was getting towards the end stage, the Council was telegraphing its intentions that new rules were coming soon – meaning that any planning application submitted had to have regard for them, even though they weren’t yet adopted. That has meant that the worse excesses of speculative development have been stopped in recent months.
So, if we binned the Plan off and started again, we would be back to having very little protection at all whilst a new Plan was attempted to be put in. Most likely, we would likely see a tsunami of speculative planning applications as a result. There is a high chance that many of these Green Belt sites we are trying to protect would get built on anyway in the interim. And, at the same time, more speculative green fields and Green Belt sites would get built on, as open season came to North East Derbyshire for more years to come.
So, why won’t the Inspector make the changes we want?
It’s a very fair question. I personally think she should have made these changes and I’m hugely disappointed she didn’t. It’s hugely frustrating that she didn’t take these remaining Green Belt sites out – there was a clear logic to doing so in my view.
I can’t speak for the Inspector – and she doesn’t have to provide any explanation (and didn’t in this case) – so we don’t absolutely know why she made the choice she did. It is likely her position will be that North East Derbyshire has been failing for years at planning (true), that North East Derbyshire proposed a plan in 2017 (true) and that significant changes at the later stages of this process are not really what usually happens. It’s all hugely frustrating and again goes back to the problems created in that 2008 – 2018 period.
So, what’s left to try?
The Inspector has now delivered a Plan which she says the District Council can adopt (good – as it allows a framework reduce the chance of speculative building for the coming years) but which still contains some Green Belt (bad – because we still think this is unnecessary to be built on). The Council will have to make a choice in the coming months about whether it adopts the plan or not.
In the interim, we are trying one last thing to improve the Plan. As your MP, I can formally request that the Department for Communities reviews the Plan to see if they are willing to make these last Green Belt changes that we would like. I will be honest with you and say that it is unlikely to be successful – as they will likely say that our District shouldn’t have proposed them in the first place – but I’m trying anyway and want to leave no stone unturned.
If the Department does remove them, then I think the draft Plan becomes relatively uncontroversial and most Councillors will adopt it. If not, there is obviously a very difficult choice to make in the coming months:
- to adopt a Plan which contains Green Belt, but where we have tried every single option to improve it and have no recourse left, or;
- to start again (if the Government will even allow us given how deficient our area has been on planning for many years – which isn’t guaranteed) and run the risk of building on the Green Belt and green fields anyway during the period whilst the Plan goes in.
Is this all the Government’s fault?
Well, not really in my view. The Government does say that Councils should build more houses but it leaves Councils to propose where the houses should be built. In doing so, however, it has a reasonable expectation that Councils will take responsible decisions in a timely manner. If they do that, they get substantial control over what happens and they are able to avoid problems. If they don’t (as happened in North East Derbyshire up to 2019), they get themselves into a whole heap of trouble. Burying heads in sand, as happened in our area before 2019, is the primary cause of the problems we are dealing with now – and that burying of heads has a very long hangover for those now trying to do the responsible thing and dig us out of the hole that we are in.
But hasn’t the Government loosened all the planning rules anyway?
No, that hasn’t happened. There has been a lot of discussion about a consultation which concluded last year which talked about how the UK’s broken planning system needs to be reformed. You can read my detailed responses here: https://www.lee4ned.com/sites/www.lee4ned.com/files/2021-06/Planning for the Future Consultation Response.pdf and Housing need consultation.pdf (lee4ned.com). The Government does want more houses to be built but, fundamentally, reform doesn’t and shouldn’t automatically mean a free for all – which is the point I made in my consultation responses.
Either way, it isn’t that pertinent to this discussion about North East Derbyshire’s local plan right now. The Government hasn’t yet announced what they are doing as a result of last year’s consultations (so we don’t have any details on their future proposals) and, whatever those proposals are, they would affect future local plan cycles, not now. For North East Derbyshire, depending upon what happens to this Local Plan, that is c.5 – 7 years away – so is not pertinent to the discussion we are having now.
So, where next?
First, we wait to see if the Department for Communities are willing to amend the Plan and remove the Green Belt. If they are, great. If not, a difficult decision awaits our District Councillors.
Whatever they choose, it’s important that residents realise the difficulties and complexities of the situation we are in – hence the purpose of this note. Working with your new District Councillor team we have tried absolutely everything to improve this Plan since 2019. Maybe we will manage it at this late stage. If we don’t, though, we did everything we could to try. Individual Councillors will need to take their own decisions about what they think is right about where to go next.
Whatever happens with the Plan, the process around individual planning applications remains the same. If an applicant wants to make an application at any time, they can do so. And, if significant applications come forward which residents don’t like, my office will still be here to support, help and assist. All sites, whether they are in the Local Plan or not, have to go through a formal planning application process. Inclusion in the Local Plan does, of course, make them more likely but we can still try to influence where we are able to do so. I would continue to try to fight Green Belt applications where residents wanted us to, even if the decisions made on the Local Plan five or ten years ago make that very difficult.
As ever, there are no easy decisions on planning. Yet, we didn’t need to be here and it is infuriating that we are. Decisions taken a decade ago, with little consultation at the time, have created the circumstances which we are in now and the current efforts are trying to make the best of a bad situation. Along with your District Council, we will keep trying to improve this Plan, right up until the last moment. And whatever happens, I hope that this note explains the reasons why we are where are and what was attempted, over many years, to try to improve the situation from the challenges created a decade ago.