The morning session finished up the Duty to Cooperate and other legal requirements. Quite a lot of time was spent discussing the consultation process and the unfriendly system currently in use. This was under the topic of whether Vale satisfied its requirement to work according to the principles laid out in its Statement of Community Involvement. (I didn’t mention that this doc is so out of date it lists Dr Evan Harris as a statutory consultee. It’s from 2009. Even some of the bodies mentioned in there no longer exist.)
One letter of submission related how difficult to use even average users found the online system, and that they felt forced to use it from the advice they’d had from Vale. They felt it was unusable by many disabled people or other ‘hard to reach groups’. CPRE’s submission had a detailed section on the shortcomings of the Housing Delivery Consultation from 2014; comments not counted, or hundreds subsumed into one, and strong points resulting in no changes to the Local Plan docs. I endorsed that.
I had a chance to relate two things: first, in the past 24 hours I personally encountered bugs in the Consultation system and requested help from Vale staff to complete my online questionnaire, and second, that I had been asking for years in full council for Vale to publish the responses they had and how those responses had informed changes to the Local Plan, and was repeatedly put of with a promise that it would be published when the Local Plan was. Inspector asked the Vale, ‘Weren’t most of the changes that came from responses just minor? Answer: Yes.
One man, Dr N Perkins, was invited to speak primarily because his consultation response had gone missing. The inspector offered up the fact that this Local Plan had more submissions than any other he has ever seen. They are printed out in binders on the stage behind him, and there look to be maybe 25 – 30 binders. Vale’s QC tried to convince the inspector (and everyone else) that the missing document was a one-off, but Inspector clocked that there’s no evidence there weren’t many more missing responses. Then, in a breathtaking display of arrogance, Vale’s QC also said that it didn’t really matter if some responses were missed out, because they probably had nothing new to contribute anyway. Dr Perkins closed it out by saying, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’
One other interesting bit. Discussion about the compliance of Vale’s 2 part Local Plan, where decisions about the final 5% of development sites aren’t due for something like 3 more years. Many parish councils pointed out the high level of uncertaintly and confusion this creates in terms of their Neighbourhood Plans. If they new the exact numbers of homes their parishes needed to take, they could get on with deciding where the new houses would go.
The afternoon session opened the consideration of the SHMA figures, housing and employment figures. Dr Tony De Vere, former Leader of the Vale council, took over the Lib Dem seat at the table. I moved back to the second row, which is apparently just out of range of the microphone system. 🙁
I was happy to hear Julie Mabberly, of Wantage and Grove Campaign Group, point out the agricultural workers growth figures. This is where SHMA predicts huge, unprecedented growth in agriculture workers in Vale, such that 750 houses would be required to house them; 750 houses is like a hole new village. One man, not sure if he was Oxfordshire County Council or a Vale consultant, admitted (with some embarrassment) that these figures were unlikely to be accurate. Everyone then queried that if there is no confidence in this figure, how were we to have confidence in the other figures.
Julie also pointed out the data showing negative jobs growth in recent years, and very low population growth too. Look for an article in today’s Oxford Times about this. Vale launched into an argument to say that past performance is not indicative of future performance. Vale denied that they jobs growth figures were aspirational, but others said there is no evidence to support such high projections. Inspector has asked for the various data sources and will determine which are more indicative.
Inspector asked if there is evidence that any new jobs created wouldn’t be filled by people already living here, rather than people immigrating from outside Vale? Good question. I didn’t hear the answers, The microphones are a constant problem, and I was no longer at the table for this part of the discussion.
Hearings resume Thursday 10am at The Beacon in Wantage. It’s open to the public.