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October 2006 



The public examination has now ended, having taken the best part of three weeks. The two Planning Inspectors – Alan Foster and David Vickery – divided the hearings into a number of subject areas (or “Matters”) and one or other led each of the sessions.

At the opening session the Inspectors explained that this was a new procedure unlike the public inquiries for previous local plans, or planning appeals. They were at pains to stress that the public examination was just one part of a process which started when HDC submitted the Core Strategy to the Secretary of State, and ended when the Inspectors issued their binding report.

HDC is one of the first local authorities to embark upon the process and it was evident there was a steep learning curve for everyone involved. For example, the Inspectors were clearly disappointed that objectors had not tried harder to resolve issues amongst themselves and with the Council in the period leading up to the hearings, despite being encouraged to do so by the Inspectors at their Pre-Examination meeting in May.

If there is a single factor that makes the new process different to what has gone before it is that the Inspectors’ duty is to test the soundness of the Council’s strategy against a prescribed list of “Tests of Soundness”. The assumption is that the strategy is sound unless evidence can be placed before the Inspectors that it is unsound. Whilst the Inspectors can require changes to be made to the Core Strategy it seems these can only be relatively minor because they cannot make changes which may disadvantage third parties. In other words, they cannot say the Council should replace plans for development south of Broadbridge Heath with a specific new location. If they thought that the Council’s proposals were unsound in respect of such a key issue they would have to reject the Core Strategy as a whole. It is also possible that the Inspectors might decide to reject the strategy on the grounds that there were too many less serious problems, what was referred to at the hearings as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The first two authorities to have their plans tested under the new procedure both had them rejected by the Inspectors. It seemed that our Inspectors were conscious of the waste of resources, and the unhelpful planning environment, that such a course involved and they were trying to be pragmatic and encourage an agreed resolution of issues where that was possible.

During the consultation stage which followed the submission of the Core Strategy the Horsham Society made a number of detailed observations, both objections and comments in support, on those parts of the document affecting the town. We also submitted additional Statements on five of the Matters identified by the Inspectors (these were circulated at the time and are available on our web site). We were represented at four of the hearings. I attended those on development strategy and level of housing provision, sustainable development principles, and infrastructure and community facilities/services. Ian Dockreay represented us at the hearing on the proposed development west of Horsham.

Each hearing followed a similar format with the objectors relating to the matter under review sitting around a table (or the council chamber) and the Inspector leading the discussion. The purpose of the hearings was to enable the Inspectors to better understand the issues, not for individual objectors to restate their objections. These were taken as read, and the Inspectors clearly had carefully read them all in advance. The Inspectors produced an agenda for each session setting out the points they wished to cover and usually invited the most relevant objector to introduce each item.

At the risk of being simplistic or over cynical discussions sometimes seemed to be polarised between representatives of the developers with land in the two strategic locations supporting the Core Strategy and emphasising its deliverability, and those representing land owners and developers with other sites (such as in Billingshurst and Southwater) arguing that the stipulated number of new homes was either insufficient, or could not be delivered in time, and therefore further land should be identified for development.

The sessions were business-like without being over formal and both Inspectors were adept at ensuring that everybody had an opportunity to make the points that they wished to. Whether or not we like the eventual outcome we certainly had a fair hearing within the new rules of the game.

With the end of the public examination the opportunity for objectors to initiate new evidence has closed, although the Inspectors can seek further clarification of the evidence already given if they wish. The Inspectors’ report is expected in the New Year.

John Steele
29 September 2006

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