The City of Durham Trust

Inspector upholds Trust objections to the County Durham Plan

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An independent inspector has comprehensively rejected nine key policies in the County Durham Plan, finding seven of them unsound and saying the other two, relating to proposed relief roads for Durham City, should be deleted from the Plan. The Council’s reaction has been to rally business leaders in support of the Plan, coupled with a misleading and selective attack on the report, and a personal attack on the Inspector. Trust Chairman Roger Cornwell, in a four page criticism of the Council’s actions, said they were “playng the man, not the ball”.

The full text of Inspector Harold Stephens’ interim statement may be found here. Trust Chair Roger Cornwell issued the following statement:

While naturally pleased that the Inspector has come down so comprehensively on the side of the objectors, it’s a disaster for the County that the Council failed to listen to the representations that we were making at earlier stages. Had they done so, we could be well on the way to having a County Durham Plan by now. Instead, realistically adoption must be put back by something like two years.

The Inspector has quoted and obviously agrees with much of what we said. For example at paragraph 78: “Nevertheless, as the City of Durham Trust points out, the ‘exceptional circumstances’ were formulated well after the decision had been taken to remove the strategic sites from the Green Belt.” The Inspector found that there were no exceptional circumstances in terms of the Green Belt legislation.

The Trust spent several thousand pounds engaging consultants to check the assertions put forward in the technical papers presented in support of the Plan. This seems to have been money well spent, which is more than can be said for the £400,000 the Council has spent on site investigations for the Western Relief Road. The Inspector said (paragraph 98) “In my view the strategic modelling does not provide the robust justification that the Council claims for these schemes. In coming to this view I have considered the evidence submitted by Durham County Council in response to points raised by the City of Durham Trust.”

Had the Council not taken such a blinkered view, we would not be in this situation. The arguments that we, and other like-minded objectors, put to the Inspector were based soundly in our understanding of the legislation and in particular the National Planning Policy Framework. The Council officers took a different view, and questions must now be asked about why they got it so comprehensively wrong.

Much of last year was spent preparing for the County Durham Plan, gathering evidence, writing comments on the final (Pre-Submission) version published by the County Council, and then preparing further comments on the latest developments. All these documents were submitted to the Examination in Public, which ran though October and November 2014. All our submissions are online, linked from the County Durham Plan page of this website.

At the Inquiry we have made common cause with the Friends of the Durham Green Belt and the Durham Group of CPRE, the Campaign to Protect Rural England. While we have differences of emphasis and detail, we all agreed that the Council’s projected population growth was much too high, and that the reasons advanced for taking land out of the Green Belt were flawed. Now the Inspector agrees with us.

In 2013 we pointed out a number of fundamental flaws with the key calculations of the likely size of Durham’s population in 2030, which of course has a knock-on effect on the number of houses required. The Council has not corrected these. Furthermore they have decided not to take into account the latest official predictions from the Office of National Statistics released in late May, which predict a lower rate of population growth than their earlier predictions. We told the Council officers that we regarded this approach as “courageous” and our supplementary submission explained why.

The Council also persisted with its plans to build 3,675 houses on the Green Belt around Durham. Our comments in 2013 showed that there were numerous places beyond the Green Belt that were within 15 or 20 minutes travel time of the City where, if houses were needed, they could be built and contribute to the City's economy. Our further submission showed that both of the large sites at North of Arnison and Sniperley Park score poorly on sustainability issues, with Sniperley Park in particular being in the bottom 4% of a list of 464 possible sites. We have also discovered that the Council owns part of Sniperley Park and stands to get £7.3m if the development goes ahead and it is developed. We ask “Would this site have been proposed if the Council did not have such extensive land holdings there?”.

The Inspector gives six reasons why the Council’s Green Belt proposals are flawed:

  1. There is no need to release 3 large sites from the Green Belt to meet the objectively assessed housing requirement.
  2. The reasoning and justification for a ‘critical mass’ for Durham City is weak and unconvincing.
  3. There are significant shortcomings in the assessment of capacity within the built up area. The Friends of Durham Green Belt have estimated from H20 that there is capacity for 2,800 new dwellings within Durham City over the plan period. Although this was reduced to 2,058 there still remain significant differences between DCC and FDGB in relation to brownfield capacity, windfall allowances, empty houses and family re-occupation of HMO accommodation. Furthermore, the strategic proportion of 16.6% allocated to Durham City is not explained or justified. The existing share is only 8.2%. In my view a more rigorous assessment of these components is required in the context of the housing need requirement and a much lower growth figure for Durham City.
  4. A wide range of evidence has influenced the release of particular sites from the Green Belt and there is support for such releases from the HBF and developers. Nevertheless, as the City of Durham Trust points out, the ‘exceptional circumstances’ were formulated well after the decision had been taken to remove the strategic sites from the Green Belt. It was not until the 2012 Durham City Green Belt Site Assessment Phase 3 that exceptional circumstances were first mooted. No exceptional circumstances are included in the 2010 Durham City Green Belt Assessment Phase 2. The 2010 Core Strategy Issues and Options document acknowledges the need for exceptional circumstances but does not identify them. The Council has not provided the required justification for releasing Green Belt sites in respect of Green Belt purposes in Green Belt assessments and the SA and has simply identified the least damaging of the sites. Sites outside the Green Belt that are accessible to key employment sites in the City have not been rigorously tested. Therefore, there can be no justification for releasing 3 large Green Belt sites.
  5. It is plain to me from several of the hearing sessions that the Council has not responded to submissions from FDGB, the CDT and others that all options for development outside the Green Belt should be assessed. Whilst it has consulted on the general principle of concentrated development versus dispersed development to other towns and villages around the County in its high growth strategy, there has been no evidence published of an assessment for Central Durham of a lower overall growth strategy with higher levels of brownfield development and dispersed development to nearby towns and villages. The unwillingness to consider and test such an alternative strategy is a critical flaw in the local plan process. It is not surprising to me that this has led to some 3,596 representations against the CDP.
  6. I have considered the detailed evidence in relation to the release of these strategic sites including that contained in the relevant SPDs and carried out site visits. The strategic sites at Sniperley Park, North of Arnison and Sherburn Road, together with the smaller sites at Merryoaks and Durham Northern Quarter, comprising about 4,000 dwellings, all fulfil the purposes of Green Belt set out in paragraph 80 of the NPPF. The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts and the PPG, in the revision dated 6 October 2014, confirms that Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances.

The Trust has taken the lead in opposing the proposed new relief roads. One submission showed that the Council had misrepresented as unqualified support documents from its consultants and the Highways Agency that say that further work needs to be done. We also highlight official statistics published by the Department for Transport that show that traffic levels are falling. For example, on the Crossgate Moor section of the A167, frequently identified as a problem, the daily average has fallen from 27,676 vehicles in 2004 to 24,135 in 2012, and that this declining trend had begun well before the economic downturn. The latest DfT data shows this trend continuing into 2013, with the daily average now 24,048 vehicles. And traffic across Milburngate Bridge, said to be “60,000 vehicles per day” in the Council’s comments on the representations it has received, was 42,469 in 2002; in 2013 the average was 41,443.

The Inspector said “The proposed Western and Northern Relief Roads are not justified, deliverable or environmentally acceptable. They are incompatible with the Government’s soundness tests and directly threaten the achievement of sustainable development. The Relief Road proposals should be withdrawn as unsustainable and unnecessary. The CDP needs to protect and exploit opportunities for the use of sustainable travel modes and make the fullest possible use of public transport provision, cycling and walking. Policy 9 and Policy 10 should be deleted from the Plan;”

In a more detailed explanation he set out six reasons for rejecting the relief road proposals, quoting our evidence about shortcomings in relation to the strategic modelling undertaken by the Council. He added that the Trust has highlighted further shortcomings in the strategic transport modelling undertaken by DCC. “There are two problems; the first is that the picture of a worsening situation of traffic congestion and delay which is set out in DCC9 does not accord with DfT official statistics. On the A167 through Crossgate Moor and the A690 over Milburngate Bridge, the DfT traffic count data shows that traffic volumes in 2013 were still below their 2000 volumes. Durham’s relative position as measured by DfT‘s average speeds and journey times during the morning peak period is significantly better than the North East or England regional average (32.8mph compared to the English average of 24.4mph). These statistics do not support a claim that Durham’s roads are unduly congested. The second problem relates to robustly forecasting future traffic growth in the current circumstances, when there is considerable emerging national and international evidence to question the assumed correlation in DfT’s forecasting guidance between GDP growth and background traffic growth. In my view the strategic modelling does not provide the robust justification that the Council claims for these schemes. In coming to this view I have considered the evidence submitted by DCC in response to points raised by the CDT.”

The Trust has many other issues with the County Durham Plan which may be explored further from our County Durham Plan page.

Subscriptions increase agreed

The Extraordinary General Meeting held on Saturday 1 November agreed a motion to increase all annual subscription rates by £5 a year. This is the first increase in seven years. During that time the Trust has spent large amounts on campaigns, such as the Market Place and, especially, the County Plan. Members agreed with the Trustees that it would now be right and prudent to raise subscriptions.