Against all odds: A planmaking triumph of perseverance over adversity

Following the issuing of the Inspectors’ Report finding the Central Bedfordshire Local Plan sound, the authority adopted its Plan last night – a significant milestone for several reasons.

Notably, this is the fourth local plan the authority has attempted to get over the line since the removal of any meaningful regional context shaping the direction of new growth for in the area.  Despite heroic efforts of officers, the local plan has wrangled with the adjoining Borough of Luton around affordable housing nomination rights (an issue falling outside of the scope of a Local Plan); struggled with recalcitrant neighbours over the Duty to Co-operate; and been impacted by the failure of statutory agencies to progress feasibility, funding and testing of proposed strategic highway improvement schemes (including the Transport Secretary’s ‘about-face’ on the Expressway proposal which runs through the district).

Furthermore, as a district with a dispersed settlement pattern and no main town or city around which to focus growth, Central Bedfordshire made a bold decision to move away from a continuation of ‘edge-settlement’ incremental expansion, to propose a growth strategy which included a new settlement within the Marston Vale, an area of former brickworking equidistant between Bedford and Milton Keynes.

The recent shortcomings of ‘new settlement development plans’ are many and well documented.  In getting the Central Beds Plan over the line, the authority has succeeded where so many of its compatriots are failing.

But it has been a long road to get here; and this is perhaps the key message upon which to reflect.

The Marston Vale has long been recognised as a potential location for strategic development and environmental regeneration.  However, despite high level policy recognition for strategic growth in this location for 16 years – including the Milton Keynes South Midlands Sub Regional Strategy published in March 2005, and the Government’s ill-fated EcoTown initiative in 2009 – it has only been since 2017 that a new strategic growth allocation has found its way into a locally-prepared development plan.

The area has been promoted through the development plan system by landowner O&H since the year 2000, supported by DLA as master planners and designers.  Against the tide of decreasing support for larger-than-local planning strategies, many landowners would have simply given up after the third local plan failed at Examination.

Instead, O&H took the decision to proceed with an OPA for the proposed new settlement despite the lack of a current plan or allocation.  Extensive consultation on the draft scheme with local people took place to inform its design, and an application was lodged in 2018 with the planning authority for a new settlement which includes 5,000 homes and 30 ha of employment land in parallel with – and as it turned out, to inform – the local plan progression.

The decision was not universally supported, with some quarters perceiving that this somehow cut across the proper planning system.  However, had it not been for the detailed design and technical analysis submitted with the application, many of the objections raised by local people at Examination – and indeed, questions posed by the two Inspectors – would not have been able to be explained and the ‘evidence’ provided to resolve their queries.

Examining a ‘real scheme’ as opposed to a theoretical proposal proved to have considerable benefit in this regard, giving confidence and certainty that what was being allocated would be delivered.  We were able to draw on a wealth of tested technical evidence at the Examination, supporting the Council through what was a hugely detailed and scrutinised evidence base.

The successful local plan outcome is due in no small part to the priority given by CBC to resourcing officer time and expertise over at least four years of intensive consultation, evidence gathering and analysis, Examination appearances and proactive engagement with local stakeholders – including those both for and against the developments proposed.  Any policy officers considering how to embark upon a local plan review would do well to look at the CBC local plan website, particularly the way in which the early-stage spatial options were explored.

Sighs of relief all round, then.  But the hardworking policy officers will only get a few months reprieve: para 51 of the Exec Committee report states: “Whilst the plan period set out in the document is 20 years, the Local Plan includes a policy commitment to undertake a partial review of the plan commencing within six months of its adoption date.  This will assist the Council in responding to a number of emerging strategies, including the Oxford/Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework and potential changes to the planning system”.

So, enjoy the summer recess all; we’ll be back to the drawing board come the Autumn!