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Opinion: Our Local Plan Review Is Bound By Government Rules

Published on: 29 May, 2021
Updated on: 1 Jun, 2021

Cllr Jan Harwood

By Jan Harwood

Lib Dem borough councillor for Merrow and lead member for Climate Change and Strategic Planning gives the Lib Dem view of the next steps to be taken with the Local Plan and its review.

As a review of the Local Plan evidence base moves forward Guildford Liberal Democrats are pledging honesty, realism and transparency throughout the review process.

We inherited the Local Plan from the previous Conservative administration, and now need to do our best for all communities in the borough to review that Plan within the government’s planning rules.

As Liberal Democrats, we do not agree with these rules, nor with how they rob local communities and their democratically elected representatives of any meaningful say over what goes into Local Plans, but the only people who can change the situation are the Conservative government.

We need to be clear with residents about what a formal ‘review’ actually means, to avoid raising false hopes.

Every Local Plan has to be reviewed at least every five years, a bit like getting an MOT for a car. Just like an MOT, the purpose of a review is to identify any problems with the Local Plan.

A review might conclude that the Local Plan is fine, or that there are minor advisory issues, or that there are major faults which need to be fixed.

If there are no issues found, or if only minor issues are found, then normally the Local Plan will be left as it is. If significant issues are found then it may be necessary to go through the process of updating it; a bit like taking a car to a mechanic to fix a broken wing mirror.

But it is only if a Local Plan is found to be fundamentally flawed and undeliverable that it can be rewritten; the equivalent of a car needing to be replaced because the engine has failed and the chassis is rusting through.

However, the definition of “fundamental” is still written by central government. So even if we all agree that something should be considered a fundamental flaw then that in itself isn’t grounds for action unless the government-written rules agree that it’s a fundamental flaw.

In the case of Guildford, the Local Plan had built-in triggers for parts of it to be reviewed if certain circumstances changed. One such trigger was if the planned A3 upgrades were delayed or cancelled which is why we have, for some time, been reviewing the transport evidence behind the Local Plan to see whether we need to put it through a formal review, early.

It is really important that we all understand what a review, and what potential updates to the Local Plan, can and cannot achieve.

The government sets the standards and rules for Local Plans. Even when the rules don’t make sense, we still have to follow them.

Much has been made of the revelation that the official population estimates, used to calculate housing need in the borough, were wrong. Unfortunately, despite being wrong, these estimates still have to be used to calculate official housing need until, and unless, the government decides to switch to new estimates.

The Guildford Local Plan was written in a very narrow window when the housing figures were based on population projections estimated in 2016. The government has since insisted that councils revert back to using the 2014 projections which were even higher.

So if we were to try to update the Local Plan as a result of a review then we would, at the moment, have to use the higher 2014 projection of housing need, despite the fact that we now know that these figures were fundamentally flawed.

Only the government can make the decision to allow councils to use new, up to date estimates, and so far they are refusing to do so.

Similarly, although the removal of greenbelt status for development sites and our villages in the Local Plan was very contentious, now that those sites have been taken out of the green belt they cannot be put back into it.

The government does not allow councils to put land back into the green belt once it’s been removed. They say that the fact it was removed in the first place means that the principle of it being suitable for development has been established.

So even if house building on a strategic site turns out to be unnecessary or impossible to deliver within the timeframe of the Local Plan, central government will not allow the site to be returned to green belt.

As a result, any politician promising that the housing numbers can be reduced or that green belt status can be restored is promising something which cannot, with certainty, be delivered under this Conservative government rules.

As Liberal Democrats we will continue to do the best we can with the tools we have available, but sadly no one should be under any illusion that a review of the Local Plan can work miracles.

The most important thing we can do now is to work together with residents to develop a vision for the kind of place we want our borough to be and a practical plan to deliver it.

Our Lib Dem group leader, Julia McShane, will be saying more about this in the very near future, but fundamentally we need to make sure we have a way to provide the high-quality housing we need; housing that will allow young people to stay in the area, and our communities to thrive and grow, without sacrificing our environment or the heritage and beauty that make our borough so special.

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Responses to Opinion: Our Local Plan Review Is Bound By Government Rules

  1. Lisa Wright Reply

    June 1, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Jan Harwood is wrong on the green belt issues. Local Plans can remove or add sites to and from the green belt.

    Again, we hear a whole bunch of excuses why Lib Dems can’t do anything. Surely it’s time they were proactive in making changes to the Local Plan for the better, rather than just toeing the line of the last Conservative council?

    Can we have someone in charge of planning that knows the rules and has a backbone?

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    June 1, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    Given the public opposition to this discredited plan, we need councillors to grow a backbone, and dare to review the plan. It could not possibly get any worse than it currently stands.

    Lilly-livered councillors who find a review on the plan on the “too hard” list, we do not need.

    GGG has been calling for amendments for over seven years, and the majority of the public now seem to agree, now they are awake to its threats.

    It is self-evident, according to the NPPF, that if land can be taken out of the green belt, it can be restored to it.

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