At Full Council this evening, I asked a written question about which Council members had been made aware of the content of the draft SHMA by EDDC officers or the Leader of the Council and when were they given this information.
Coincidentally, Cllr Claire Wright asked a question about how the Council could justify yet more delays to the Local Plan by not publishing the SHMA report until after the election.
The SHMA is a vital report which we have been awaiting for an inordinate amount of time. It’s a study (or in fact several studies) commissioned by five councils, including East Devon, but led by Mid-Devon District Council, into the housing needs of our area over the Local Plan period. Planning Inspector, Anthony Thickett, severely criticised the council for not having an up-to-date evidence base for the number of houses needed. Work on this was already in progress, but took on renewed importance given that the Inspector found the Local Plan unsound.
Delay followed delay, more delay followed more delay and these delays were compounded by yet more delay.
Then we heard that the draft SHMA had been produced, but we would not know the figures for housing numbers until after the election, as more work had to be done.
So I was truly astonished to read the response to my written question on the SHMA report which clearly laid out a timetable for the Local Plan process and its future adoption. ‘Astonished’ because nobody saw fit to email all councillors with this exciting news, but instead chose to put the information in a written answer to a written question, which only a few councillors might even bother to read.
I understand a press release has gone out, which is an excellent way of telling all residents in East Devon what’s going on, but the courtesy of an email to ward members who have been so frustrated by the Council’s failure to have an adopted Local Plan would have been appropriate.
The reply to the questions posed is as follows:
The production of the SHMA has unfortunately been a long and drawn out process. There are 6 key stages to the production of the SHMA. These are:
1. Definition of the housing market area
2. Understanding household projections
3. Addressing market signals
4. Addressing housing backlog
5. Measuring affordable housing need
6. Future employment and economic growth assumptions and aspirations
A so-called draft SHMA was sent through from the consultants in August 2014 after they had completed only the first two stages of the process. This information was communicated to Members via a report to Development Management Committee on 26 August 2014 and an all Members briefing note on 27 August 2014. This report and briefing note made it clear that the information available so far simply modelled housing numbers based on historic trends and that without taking account of factors such as the backlog of affordable housing need and projecting future employment and economic growth, the information was largely meaningless. No further draft SHMA information has been made available to any Members since that time indeed until the SHMA process is complete and all factors have been taken into account any data would have been misleading. I appreciate that this delay has been highly frustrating for all of us but we have been entirely dependent on consultants to cary out this work. Given the expertise required and the need to consider data from all of the authorities within the housing area, there was no other option than to use external consultants on this work. Unfortunately, it has taken them much longer than envisaged.
In advance of receipt of the final SHMA, Mid-Devon District Council have proceeded with production and consultation on their Local Plan. It is understood that their work is based on the draft SHMA data that all of the participating authorities received in August 2014 and some subsequent employment projections. Mid-Devon do not have any additional data than we do, however their position is slightly more straight forward as they do not have a growth point and therefore it is easier to predict factors such as future job growth in Mid-Devon than it is here in East Devon. Clearly, there are risks associated with Mid-Devon’s approach, however, this is not our concern as we must focus on delivering our own Local Plan.
I am pleased to say that the SHMA work is now complete and only yesterday a draft report was provided by the consultants to officers of the commissioning authorities. The work now needs to be considered by officers and any queries raised with the consultants before the report can be finalised and published. This will happen in the next week to 10 days. We envisage publishing the SHMA in a co-ordinated way between the authorities and their respective Members with the report being sent to Members slightly in advance of wider publication.
The SHMA was the remaining key piece of evidence that enables us to produce an objectively assessed housing need for the district and move forward with the Local Plan. We had previously envisaged that the upcoming election would prevent progress being made until May; however, the Inspector has made it clear that he expects to see the proposed changes to the Local Plan by mid-April and we must adhere to the timescale that he has set as the process moving forward is led by the inspector.
Our time line now looks like this:
- Early March – publication of the SHMA
- By end of March – DMC and full council meeting to consider revisions to the Local Plan including proposed housing numbers
- Submission of revisions to Inspector immediately following incorporation of any changes following full Council
- Inspector provides questions upon which to seek views through consultation
- Consultation commences (mid-April)
- Consultation ends (end May)
- Oral examination sessions reconvene (August/September)
- Local Plan adoption by end of year.
For the first time in a very long time, I feel slightly optimistic that perhaps EDDC might be putting itself back in charge of the planning process. Only ‘slightly’ optimistic, however, as there is a long way still to go to get East Devon out of the planning mire.