In a letter from Nick Boles to PINS on inspector's reporting of local plans, Mr Boles states that he was "disturbed by the Inspector's use of language, which invited misinterpretation of government policy and misunderstanding about the local authority's role in drawing up all of the policies in the draft plan."
Mr Boles' letter states that "the Framework makes clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances and reiterates the importance and permanence of the Green Belt." Indeed it does. Paragraph 47 states that local plans should meet "the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework". A written ministerial statement this year also noted the Secretary of State’s policy position, that unmet need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the “very special circumstances” justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.
I have had a look at the Reigate & Banstead Inspector's Report and it actually appears quite measured. In relation to public opposition to Green Belt release the report states that "while I required further work to resolve the ambivalence in the Plan, it is the Council’s own objective evidence which identifies Green Belt releases to meet part, but not all, of the assessed housing need."
Mindful then of faceless Bristol-based bureaucrats bullying LPAs into meeting their full, objectively assessed housing requirements, especially having gone through the rigmarole of revoking RSSs, Mr Boles states in relation to Green Belt review that it must "always be transparently clear that it is the local authority itself which has chosen that path – and it is important that this is reflected in the drafting of Inspectors’ reports."
Green Belt boundary changes are controversial. Of course they, but what are the alternative paths for an LPA that cannot achieve a political consensus? To either not meet full, objectively assessed need, or to rely on a neighbouring authority to make provision for it? Down these paths lie unsoundness. Messers Blunt and Boles might not like it, but the appearance of an inspector at the business end of the process to make controversial decisions and disappear faster than a nimby can say 'petition' might actually be the best path for a LPA to take.
The Reigate & Banstead Inspector's Report is to be considered at an Executive Meeting on 20 March and a Council meeting on 10 April. Presumably if the Council choose not to accept the inspector's modifications Mr Pickles will intervene and the can can be kicked into the next parliament. We shall see.
Update. 23 June 2014.
Planning Resource is reporting today that, following the delay caused by Mr Boles' intervention, Reigate & Banstead's executive has voted to adopt its core strategy.
"An officers' report for the meeting, which recommended adoption, concluded that, following legal advice on the exchange of letters, there had been no change in government policy and the inspector had not "erred in his conclusions on the soundness of the [document]".
Messers Blunt and Boles might have scored themselves some headlines then, but clearly nobody has been railroaded and nobody has invited misinterpretation of the LPA's role. The core strategy will be adopted in accordance with the inspector's recommendation, just a few months later than it could have been.