Government strips Uttlesford council of its right to rule on major planning applications

Uttlesford District Council in Essex

Uttlesford District Council has been stripped of its right to rule on major planning applications in the district - Credit: Will Durrant

The government has stripped Uttlesford District Council of its right to rule on major planning applications today (February 8).

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has told UDC that it is "not adequately performing" as a planning authority.

DLUHC found that its Planning Inspectorate overturned 16.5% of Uttlesford council's decisions in the two years to March 2020.

Of the 79 major planning applications which Uttlesford council determined or failed to determine over this period, 35 were sent to appeal, and 13 were given the go-ahead by inspectors.

Based on this data, the government has decided to place the council in special measures with a Section 62A Designation Notice, the first time that it has used these powers for seven years.

This means that developers with major plans can choose to bypass UDC and send their proposals straight to the Planning Inspectorate.

Council leader Petrina Lees, of Residents for Uttlesford, has said that the move is a "betrayal of local democracy".

The Conservative Party – which controlled UDC before May 2019 – has warned that “residents will suffer” now that major decision-making is no longer in the council’s hands.

Cllr Petrina Lees, Residents for Uttlesford

Councillor Petrina Lees, Residents for Uttlesford - Credit: Residents for Uttlesford (R4U)

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Cllr Lees said: "We've all seen the reports in the press of the huge donations to the Conservatives by property tycoons.

"We don't 'dance with donors' - we stick up for residents.

"Residents have repeatedly said 'no' to unsustainable development and locally voted the Conservatives out.

"So they've decided instead they want to approve 1,000s of homes via the back door.

"The excuse they are using to seize control comes from their claim that UDC isn't winning enough planning applications on appeal.

"The vast majority of applications today are approved, with just the poorest being refused, and fewer going to appeal for further review.

"This removal of local decision-making is an unwarranted and cynical political move."

Cllr Lees said that developers have eyed up land near Dunmow, Chesterford and Stebbing for large new towns.

She fears that developers could use this Designation Notice to push their plans through.

The government has used a dataset which begins in March 2018 and spans two years.

The Conservative Party had control of UDC at the start of this period.

Cllr George Smith, Conservative Party

Councillor George Smith, Conservative Party - Credit: Conservative Party

Conservative councillor George Smith said: "This is another significant failure that R4U have caused the district.

"They will undoubtedly blame everyone else, including the government.

"But it is the decisions that they have taken that has led the government to conclude that UDC should be placed under Designation status.

"It is under R4U that the Planning function at Uttlesford has become dysfunctional."

Cllr Smith added: "R4U councillors have to accept that they cannot ignore planning law for political gain – that is what has led us to where we are today, and why we have the worst performing planning function in the country.

"What impact this will have on the local plan remains to be seen but if the Council cannot decide the future vision of our communities, all residents will suffer."

DLUHC’s Designation Notice is signed by former housing minister Christopher Pincher MP – who was replaced by Stuart Andrew MP in a reshuffle this afternoon.

Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) Christopher Pincher in Down

Christopher Pincher MP, who was removed from his post as Minister of State for Housing during a reshuffle today (February 8) - Credit: PA/Dominic Lipinski

It reads: "The Secretary of State considers that there are respects in which the planning authority are not adequately performing their function of determining applications for planning permission for major development.

"This designation has effect from 9am on February 8, 2022 and shall remain in force until revoked."

A DLUHC spokesperson confirmed that UDC’s battle to oppose Stansted Airport’s expansion plan contributed to the decision.

The airport wanted permission to expand by building nine new aircraft stands, which was granted by the Planning Inspectorate after a lengthy appeal.

A council document shows that this case has cost UDC over £1million so far.

The DLUHC spokesperson added: "Local decision-making is at the heart of the planning process, but the government will designate planning authorities who are underperforming to ensure communities have a fair and reliable system.

"Uttlesford District Council will now need to improve its performance and we will work with them so that the designation can be lifted as soon as possible."