The new unitary authority, Durham County Council, was set up in 2009, and began preparing a new Plan covering the whole of the County, to replace the individual plans of the former district councils. Each stage of this process was accompanied by a six week (minimum) consultation. They started with a Core Strategy Issues paper in October 2009, a high level document. This was followed by an Issues and Options paper in June 2010, which was accompanied by a Green Belt Assessment Scoping Paper. Two options were offered: Option A had an increased focus on Durham City for jobs, housing and retailing and Option B targeted the most deprived areas of the County. The Council’s preference was option A.
The Trust’s view was that these were very polarised options and that Option B had been set up to fail. There was a middle way with dispersed development that did not involve building on the Green Belt around Durham City. Indeed, when the Inspector’s report in 2004 recommended a Green Belt, it specifically said that development could take place in the villages around Durham just beyond the outer edge of the Green Belt.
Nevertheless, when the next stage, Preferred Options, was reached in September 2012, it was Option A that was being proposed. As well as building on the Green Belt, this proposed two unnecessary ‘relief roads’. The Trust’s response was to say that the small, tight-knit nature of the City, which is one of its defining qualities, would be lost through a deliberate policy of subjecting it to excessive and unsustainable growth.
The final consultation, on the Pre-submission Draft, came in 2013. The proposals were more nuanced but still proposed taking three major areas out of the Green Belt and, in two late changes, also proposed further deletions at Merryoaks and around Crook Hall. The Trust’s response maintained its opposition. Nevertheless, in April 2014 the Council submitted the Plan for an Examination in Public (EiP) with essentially the Pre-Submission Draft with a few changes, not all favourable.
Stage 1 of the EiP took place in October and November 2014 in front of the Inspector Harold Stephens. This dealt with strategic matters. The Trust participated in many of the hearings as did other amenity groups, notably the Friends of the Durham Green Belt and CPRE (the Campaign to Protect Rural England). The EiP was meant to continue with two further stages dealing with the details, however on February 2015 the Inspector issued his interim report which gave his provisional view that the Plan was unsound in all of the matters of concern to the Trust. It was obvious that the Plan could not continue on its course.
After deliberations the Council and some developers who had hoped to build on the Green Belt sought to have the Interim Report judicially reviewed, on the grounds that its conclusions were invalid and that the conduct of the EiP was unfair. The Trust and others were named as interested parties. We sided with the Inspector. After negotiations between the parties (but not involving the Trust) a proposed consent order was drawn up. This said that it was agreed that the Inspector’s conduct of the EiP was procedurally unfair. It did not concede that the conclusions were wrong. However it was agreed that the Interim Report would be quashed but as a quid pro quo the Council would withdraw the Plan. We were asked to sign the consent order but refused. After a further delay it was agreed by the court without our consent, but we did not pursue our objection.
The Court Order stated that the Council would produce an amended and refreshed Plan and resubmit it, which was taken to mean they would go back to the pre-submission draft stage and pick it up from there. However, after receiving legal advice the Council went back two further steps and restarted with a new Issues and Options document.