When the new Conservative administration took power at County Hall last year, one of its first moves was to withdraw the core strategy – the main element of the council’s Local Plan.
Public consultation is currently taking place on the first draft of the new plan, but this is not set to be fully in place until March 2020.
At the meeting last July when the decision was taken, councillors were assured that if the core strategy was withdrawn, adopted neighbourhood plans would carry full weight and emerging ones would carry some weight depending on where they were up to in their preparation.
But written legal advice received by the council last October and which the authority has refused to disclose through either media inquiries or under the Freedom of Information Act, but which has now been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, suggests otherwise.
It explains that given one of the main reasons for the withdrawal was the desire for more up-to-date evidence on housing numbers, the weight given to any policies in neighbourhood plans reliant on the core strategy and its evidence would likely have to be reduced.
Indeed, at an appeal hearing which finished on Tuesday for housing on a site designated as employment land in the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan, the lawyer for the appellants, Sasha White QC, has made this very point, claiming the Alnwick document is already out of date.
However, the county council’s legal advice added that policies or neighbourhood plans which did not rely on the core strategy or the evidence which supported it could still be given full weight.
A county council spokeswoman said: “Councils are entitled to take legal advice and for this to remain confidential.
“We nevertheless take such information fully into account when working with communities, including neighbourhood planning groups.
“There are inevitably a range of vested interests in planning and, in this case, the council considered that communities were better protected by preserving the confidential status of the advice obtained.”
But the Labour opposition has repeated its call for an independent examination, which was made in the wake of serious allegations against the council by developer Lugano in relation to its Dissington Garden Village proposal near Ponteland. These have been refuted.
A Labour spokesman said: “It’s now becoming apparent why the authority is operating under a veil of secrecy since May last year.
“Now we find that there is contradictory legal advice which has been withheld from town and parish councils that have been working on neighbourhood plans. Local councillors knew about the advice but were forced to sign up to the Tory omerta.
“Not only has the authority withheld vital advice from public view, but they’ve issued misleading statements indicating neighbourhood plans would save communities from the disastrous decision to remove the core strategy.
“Every day that goes by, a new piece of damning evidence emerges that raises more questions about (council leader) Peter Jackson’s decision to scrap Labour’s plan.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service