The District Council Annual Presentation

A key annual event for the Society is the visit by a representative of the District Council, to update us on issues of topical importance and, crucially, to hear what we have to say. For the second year running, we were fortunate to welcome the Cabinet portfolio holder for Planning and Development, C'llr Alan White.

Predictably, Alan's presentation started by updating us on progress with the preparation of the Local Plan. He started with a brief explanation of the revised (and so-called simpler) local planning system. The Government planning mantra is set out in its National Planning Policy Framework and explains how local authorities should set about preparing a local plan. Key amongst its dictums is to explain the implications if local authorities haven't adopted a new style local plan. Our existing plan is now moving towards the end of its life. By March 2013 (one year after the Framework came into being) it will cease to carry much weight in determining planning applications. The Government tells us in the Framework that if a planning application (say, for housing) is "sustainable", then the old local plan is overruled and there is a presumption in favour of permitting the application. Hence, the pressure is on at the Council to move forward as rapidly as possible with the new plan, especially since there are new housing planning applications waiting in the wings.

But we must not sacrifice accuracy for speed. The new plan has to reflect the District's needs, be capable of implementation, be logically developed AND be consistent with the National Planning Policy Framework. These are what the Government calls "tests of soundness". No wonder that the background papers for the new local plan so far published, said Alan, run to 6000 sides! One of the key areas of work for the Council has been to quantify housing need. Public rumblings of concern led to the Council seeking consultant's advice on its projected housing figures. Lichfield's housing figures are complex. The population is ageing (so we need more suitable accommodation), affordable housing need is growing (but builders like building larger, expensive houses here) and the younger population is moving away (for jobs and cheaper housing elsewhere). How do the planners factor in all these trends (and try and reverse some of them)?

Similarly, we need more jobs (to reduce outward commuting and to retain the younger population). The Council says the figure is 7000-9000 over the next 20 years. But to get the right jobs in the right locations is easier said than done. It's economic factors that determine industrial location decisions, not the Council! Finally, Alan pointed out that the Council will need to show that it has in place an "infrastructure plan", so that roads and other services can cope with any new development from "day one".

If that wasn't enough, the Government has swept away the umbrella regional planning structure and replaced it with the "duty to cooperate". This means that every council has to liaise with its neighbouring and nearby councils and statutory bodies as it prepares its plan and ensure as far as possible that neighbours' needs in its area are recognised and met. Difficult meetings have ensued with Cannock Chase and Tamworth Councils! This requirement has proven to be a difficult hurdle to leap for many councils and their plans have consequently been rejected.

So where do we go from here? The council is on the verge of submitting its local plan proposals. An inspector appointed by the Department of Communities & Local Government will initially examine all the information and the objections and decide if the plan can proceed to a Public Examination. There, the inspector will then consider all the information and come to a view as to whether the plan is "sound". Alan hopes all this can be completed this year.

Alan then moved on to talk about the proposed Friarsgate development, currently approaching ten years of gestation. In those ten years, retailing has changed out of all recognition. Tough economic conditions, coupled with the popularity of internet shopping have led to a major retrenchment in town centre shopping. Although the Council is still committed to upgrading this area it recognises, both as landowner and planning authority, that the entire scheme will have to be reviewed if no progress is made this year in attracting an anchor tenant and that Debenhams has opted for occupation of the former T J Hughes's store. At best, there's the possibility of a smaller scheme, retaining the key elements (anchor store, cinema, restaurants, housing, a new bus station and a link to the Three Spires Centre); the alternative is a fresh start.

Alan briefly alluded to the High Speed Rail project, as Chairman of the two Council Forums dealing with it. He understood that a Hybrid Bill would go before Parliament in the next two years, granting outline planning planning permission for the scheme. Reserved matters in the permission, such as landscaping and local design could be delegated to those councils who support the passage of the Bill.

Finally, questions were asked about increased pedestrianisation in the City Centre. Following a consultation exercise, this is still very much on the agenda, possibly through the operation of a rising bollard opposite the former Kwicksave store, but don't expect immediate action!

Those hardly souls (and there were many) who ventured out on a cold January night, went home fully rewarded by a constructive and knowledgeable presentation from a councillor who clearly has Lichfield's best interests at heart. His willingness to share this trials, tribulations and frustrations as the planning portfolio holder was refreshing.

Roger Hockney
January 2013