An independent councillor has echoed Labour’s fears about the withdrawal of a key planning document in Northumberland, saying it should be logged as a high risk to the county council.
After gaining power last May, the new Conservative administration decided to withdraw the core strategy, meaning that the authority had to start again on the development of its Local Plan, which isn’t expected to be in place until 2020.
In March, the Government warned Northumberland that the preparation of its new plan, which is the framework for development in the county, must be speeded up by three months.
The Labour opposition has consistently raised concerns about the withdrawal of the core strategy and its implications. Earlier this month, it was claimed the council was keeping communities in the dark by withholding legal advice on the robustness of neighbourhood plans.
The motives behind its withdrawal were also questioned in Lugano’s recent explosive letter making a series of allegations about efforts to derail its Dissington Garden Village scheme, claims which have received short thrift from the council and its leadership.
Prior to that, at this month’s full meeting of the county council, Coun Anne Dale called on the authority to list the withdrawal of the core strategy as a high risk in its annual governance statement for 2017/18, which is yet to be finalised.
Her reasons for this are the risk of unplanned development, appeals, costs against the council and the further burden of ongoing costs in the creation of a new plan.
“I feel strongly that the withdrawal of the core strategy is a high risk,” she said. “I’m going to take that to the external auditors because it’s a big risk and I feel this council has been misled.”
Her call followed Coun Georgina Hill, also an independent, who chairs the audit committee, highlighting that the annual governance statement had been deferred and that she would ‘welcome any comments from members’.
But after the meeting, Coun Hill said: “There was a full debate before the core strategy was withdrawn. At that debate, the pros and cons including the risks were outlined.
“Essentially, the council has been left stuck between a rock and a hard place given the risk posed by keeping a core strategy which was based on flawed information and presumptions, especially in relation to projected population numbers and housing need.
“Of course the council takes legal advice on issues. Legal advice is always privileged. Especially in these circumstances, the release of the council’s private legal advice would simply highlight the council’s legal position and thus invite speculative challenges from developers.
“It is a shame that Coun Dale and her Labour friends want to weaken the council’s legal position in this way. One may suspect an ulterior motive.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service