NEVER mind the election for now: there's something way more important that kicks off in York just days before we all go to the polls.

Ever heard of the York Local Plan? Well, the long-awaited public inquiry into it opens on December 10 - just two days before election day. Planning inspectors have apparently decided that it is not politically sensitive enough to justify delaying it until after polling day.

It may not be sensitive, but it does matter. How many new homes do we need to build in York, and where should they go? What kind of roads, shops, schools, offices and jobs do we need to support the people who will live there - and where will they all go? It is the York Local Plan that will set the framework for all of this for the next 15-20 years.

Shockingly, York hasn't had an officially adopted local plan for well over half a century - not since the 1956 York town plan, in fact.

You can probably blame squabbling local politicians, at least in part, for that. Since local government reorganisation created the unitary authority that is City of York Council in 1996, control of the council has repeatedly changed hands: from Labour to the Liberal Democrats to a hung council, then back to Labour again and, since 2015, a hung council once more.

Different political groups have had wildly different views on what should be in the plan - for example, how many new homes York needs. So every time the authority has changed hands, it has been back to square one, with a new intake of local politicians undoing much of the work that had been put in on the plan by the previous administration.

York Press:

'Key Diagram' from the draft York local plan showing green belt and key development sites

Not having a plan matters, because it has left the city vulnerable to developers. There is no officially accepted overall blueprint setting out which areas of land in the city have been set aside for housing, which for office space, industry, schools, roads and other infrastructure - and which areas are green belt and so strictly off limits.

The result of this has been what council officers call 'planning by application and appeal'. Developers put in an application; council planners reject it; and the developer promptly goes to appeal, knowing it will be harder for the authority to justify its decision to refuse planning permission because there is no local plan to back it up.

Had there been a local pan in place, for example, it is possible that Barwood Land might have decided not to try to appeal against the council's refusal to let it build more than 500 homes at Moor Lane near Askham Bog - and a threat to this irreplaceable nature reserve might have been averted altogether.

Instead, Barwood appealed against the council's decision, and a costly public inquiry was held which finished just last week. We're still waiting to hear the outcome.

In the absence of an overarching local plan, council planners have been relying on other documents to try to justify their planning decisions - a Yorkshire and the Humber 'regional spatial strategy' which sets out the general extent of the York green belt; ultra-local 'neighbourhood plans' in Poppleton, Rufforth and Earswick; and a 2005 draft York local plan which was never adopted but is the nearest thing we have to a guiding, city-wide planning document. It carries some weight in planning matters - but not very much, admits Rachel Macefield, the council's forward planning manager.

York Press:

York desperately needs an official plan to guide future development

There will be real benefits to getting a properly-adopted plan in place, therefore, Rachel says. It will be easier to protect York against overdevelopment or development in the wrong place, for a start. But it will also speed up the pace at which we can build the homes we desperately need. Sites allocated for housing development will be clearly identified in the plan - so that developers will know exactly where they can and can't build. "It will help developers," says Mike Slater, the council's assistant director for planning and public protection. "We'll be able to refer them to the plan."

Ever since a new Tory/ Lib Dem coalition took power in York in 2015, work has been going on frantically to try to put together a local plan. Despite continued arguments with Labour over how many houses York needs to build every year (and therefore how much housing land should be identified in the plan) a draft was eventually submitted to government planning inspectors.

It is that draft plan that two inspectors will begin to examine at the public inquiry which opens at York Racecourse on December 10.

So does this mean that we're almost there and that York will soon be protected by a properly adopted plan?

Well, not quite.

The inquiry is expected to last until December 19 - with a short break on December 12 and 13 to allow for the election. Interested parties will be able to argue about whether the plan complies with national planning guidelines; about whether it provides for enough new houses; and about whether it gets the green belt right.

Some time after the inquiry closes, planning inspectors will issue their report. That report may recommend that the council makes some changes - in which case the authority would then have to go out to consultation on the changes it plans to make.

But even after all that is done, it will still only be the first phase of the process that has been completed.

This first public inquiry is looking only at strategic aspects of the plan - how many new houses are needed overall; whether it is based on sound evidence and is deliverable; and whether it complies with national planning policy.

Only once all that has been agreed will we get down to the real nitty-gritty - a second public inquiry which will look at the detail of exactly which parcels of land in York should be used for what. That's when the real fireworks will begin, admits Mike Slater. Because land that is allocated for housing suddenly leaps in value. "So a lot of people whose land doesn't appear on the options list (the list of allocated housing land) will be saying 'we think our site should be there'."

That hearing too is expected to take 10 days or so - after which, if planning inspectors are satisfied and recommend the plan is ready to be adopted, City of York Council can vote to adopt it.

So how long could it be before we get our local plan?

If all goes well, it could possibly be by the end of next year or early 2021, says Rachel Macefield.

And if things go less well and lots of changes have to be made? The time taken for such plans to go through can vary from six months to up to four years, admits Mike Slater.

Let's just hope things go smoothly...

The local plan hearing which begins on December 10 is open to the public. To find out more about the plan or the hearing, visit


Some key provisions of the draft York Local Plan


The plans suggests that York needs at least 867 new homes every year between now and 2033. It allocates a string of sites across the city, some large, some small, where these houses can go. The sites include:

  • British Sugar/ Manor School (1200 homes)
  • three new 'garden villages'. These would be on land east of Metcalfe Lane on the edge of Derwenthorpe (845 homes); on land west of Wigginton Road (1,350 homes); and on land west of Elvington Lane (3,300 homes)
  • almost 1,000 new homes on land north of Monks Cross
  • more than 700 homes on land north of Haxby
  • more than 850 homes at Nestlé South
  • more than 750 homes at Imphal Barracks
  • up to 2,500 homes at York Central

York Press:

Imphal Barracks: could one day provide space for up to 750 homes


Green belt

The plan defines an area of green belt around York which should not be used for development

Economy and retail

The plan suggests that York needs to create 650 new jobs a year between now and 2033. It identifies locations in York that could be used for new office, retail and industrial space, including:

  • York Central (100,000 square metres of 'employment' floorspace)
  • Northminster Business Park (49,500 square metres)
  • the University of York expansion (25 hectares)
  • land south of the Airfield Business Park at Elvington (33,330 square metres)
  • Whitehall Grange, Wigginton Road