A masterplan to build 105,000 homes across the West of England is in tatters after government inspectors ruled the entire process must start all over again, and would take years to complete.
The damning assessment comes after officials told the four unitary authorities — Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset — to take their Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) back to the drawing board and demanded “radical” changes.
Last month, planning inspectors, Malcolm Rivett and Steven Lee concluded they had “significant concerns” about fundamental aspects of the region’s housing blueprint, primarily the way the 12 main locations for new developments were chosen.
They dramatically halted the public examination stage of the JSP saying it was unlikely they would find the plan legally sound because they could not be certain the sites and overall spatial strategy had been determined on a “robust, consistent and objective” basis.
Now, in a blistering letter to the councils explaining their findings in more detail, they say the evidence presented by the local authorities at July’s hearings in Bath’s Guildhall had only “deepened” their concerns, and directed them to withdraw the JSP and start again from scratch.
Mr Rivett and Lee said an “enormous amount of work” was needed, amounting to a “virtual rewriting” of the plan.
In the letter published on Wednesday (11th September ), they said: “The changes we envisage are necessary to the JSP are so fundamental that, in effect, the examination would have to be run again.
“It is likely that the necessary main modifications would result in a radically altered plan which would need to be, in its entirety, the subject of full public consultation.
“This would then need to be followed by the publication of completely new ‘matters, issues and questions’ for the examination, written statements would need to be invited and hearings held on all aspects of the altered plan.
“Given that it has taken 16 months to get the examination to the current point, we envisage it would take at least the same amount of time, and probably considerably longer, to ultimately complete it.”
The inspectors warned the councils that if they tried “simply to re-justify the selection” of the 12 strategic development locations (SDLs), it would “lack credibility” and “could not now be considered to be anything other than retrospective justification of the plan”.
They wrote: “Consequently, it would be very unlikely to persuade us that the SDLs, and thus the spatial strategy overall, were selected on a robust, consistent and objective basis.
“Instead, we believe that it is likely to be most appropriate for the councils to return to the plan preparation process to formulate a robust, consistent and objective framework against which candidate SDLs can be selected for inclusion in the plan.”
The officials said the whole process could be “very complex, potentially confusing to the public and unwieldy and would be likely to delay, rather than accelerate, the planning and delivery of new development” across the region.
They therefore advised the local authorities to reconsider their approach to the replacement JSP as well as each of the four councils’ Local Plans and the West of England Combined Authority’s forthcoming Spatial Development Strategy, which is in its early stages.
One of the inspectors’ key criticisms was how the dozen SDLs — including Thornbury, Charfield, Buckover, Yate, Coalpit Heath, Brislington, North Keynsham, Whitchurch, Nailsea, Backwell, Churchill and Banwell — were chosen.
They said they were not convinced the councils had considered “reasonable alternatives”.
The officials also criticised the plan’s inclusion of 8,550 homes on greenbelt land at five of the SDLs, which the unitary authorities insisted were selected only because of exceptional circumstances after all other possible sites on non-protected land were rejected as unsuitable.
Mr Rivett and Mr Lee wrote: “This approach could potentially be justified if it was not for the fact that the plan identifies as a contingency location (to be brought forward at a later date if needed) land at east Clevedon which is outside of the greenbelt.”
The inspectors added that the JSP should have earmarked land for the possible expansion of Bristol Port and Bristol Airport because they were deemed to be vital to the region’s economy, and that delegating these decisions to smaller Local Plans was unjustified.
Speaking on behalf of the four unitary authorities in response to the letter, Bristol City Council cabinet member for spatial planning and city design Cllr Nicola Beech said: “We are disappointed by some of the conclusions drawn by the inspectors.
“But we are also pleased to see they have confirmed the benefits of our strategic approach to planning and our cooperation across the region.
“We remain fully committed to working together to achieve the best outcomes, and while it is clear that we will not pursue the JSP in its current form, we will now consider their detailed comments carefully as we work to determine the best way forward.
“We share the desire of the residents and businesses who make up our communities and want to see us working together effectively.
“We are still totally committed to working cooperatively to provide the homes, space for jobs, the living environment and the infrastructure we need to meet the challenges of the future — including addressing the housing crisis, the need for jobs and affordable housing, and responding to the climate emergency.
“We will fully consider the technical details carefully and the potential options open to us to move forwards, in addition to considering the implications for the ongoing development of Local Plans.
“We will do this in the coming weeks and anticipate submitting a formal response to the Planning Inspectorate as soon as practicable.”
Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter