Wrexham’s Football Team is on the way up but is their Local Development Plan on the way down?

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Wrexham’s football team is on the way up but is their Local Development Plan on the way down?

Wrexham’s football team is on the way up but is their Local Development Plan on the way down?

Simon Coop & Harry Russell 05 May 2023
In April 2023, Wrexham AFC concluded its Hollywood fairy-tale, returning to the football league after a 15-year absence, following the takeover of the club in 2020 by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny.  The takeover of the football club has installed a new sense of optimism in the city, with the owners promising to commit funding to the club, expand the stadium and regenerate the local area.
This success has been the subject of nationwide discussion and has put Wrexham firmly on the sporting map. April was not only a significant month for Wrexham in terms of sport. Another local event has also been the subject of widespread debate and has put the city on the planning map.
On 19 April, Wrexham Councillors voted 27 to 23 against adopting the Wrexham Local Development Plan 2013-2028 [LDP].  The vote was despite a protracted examination and the Inspectors finding the LDP to meet the test of soundness. The reasons for this decision were wide ranging and included the following:

  1. The view that the LDP represented a “developer rather than community led” plan that had been “imposed on the people of Wrexham”;

  2. The proposed scale of development and projected population was too high;

  3. As a consequence, it would result in urban sprawl and the loss of green fields;

  4. The LDP fails to address the need for genuine affordable housing;

  5. Current infrastructure is inadequate for development and the proposed level of growth would place an unacceptable level of pressure on local infrastructure and services; and,

  6. Issues over the selection of ‘Gypsy and Traveller’ sites (due to physical and contamination constraints on these sites).

Whilst the Inspectors made comments on these matters, they did not require the LDP to be amended substantially in respect of any of these points. As such, the Councillors essentially voted not to adopt the Plan that they had supported prior to submission. In so doing, they have created an unprecedented situation, becoming the first authority in Wales to refuse to adopt a plan after it has been found to be sound, despite a statutory duty to do so.
The wider context to this makes the situation even more serious. Wrexham is the only local authority in Wales that has never adopted a Planning Policy Wales compliant LDP.  Its Unitary Development Plan [UDP], which was adopted in 2005, covered the period to 2011 but no replacement Plan has been adopted to provide statutory development plan coverage beyond that time. Despite being submitted to the Welsh Government back in April 2019, the LDP Examination process had been stalled by uncertainty relating to the ongoing phosphates issues in Wrexham[1].  As a result of the delays, the Plan would only cover a remaining period of five years to 2028 and it was intended that work on a new plan would begin immediately following adoption of the LDP. The decision not to adopt the LDP threatens to extend the period of time in which Wrexham lacks an up-to-date development plan and delay work on the preparation of a replacement plan to cover the period beyond 2028.
The significance of this should not be underestimated. The Welsh Government places great emphasis on the plan-led system, noting that:

  1. “Up to date agile development plans are the cornerstone of our planning system” (letter from Julie James AM to local authority leaders and chief executives, 7 July 2020);

  2. “Up to date LDPs are needed urgently to give effect to local development priorities and national planning policy” (Building Better Places); and,

  3. Plans make “a real difference on the ground, achieving practical and positive improvements for local communities and businesses” (LDP Manual paragraph 1.2).

Against this context, a local authority that fails to bring forward a new LDP – particularly once it has been found sound following examination – is likely to be viewed with concern by the Welsh Government. The key question that emerges is what happens next. Wrexham is undoubtedly in unchartered territory and there are many unknowns. However, the following is clear:

  1. As set out above, local authorities have a statutory duty to adopt their LDPs.

  2. The Welsh Government has wide ranging powers in respect of the LDP process and will be keen to avoid Wrexham setting a precedent that other councils might seek to follow as this goes against the grain of the plan-led system and could undermine the clearly stated objectives of the Government.

  3. Whilst the legislative powers set out in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 do not explicitly include giving the Welsh Government power to direct an authority to adopt a plan, Part 6 section 71 gives the Welsh Government “step-in” powers where an authority is failing to take necessary steps whilst section 65(1) gives Ministers powers to direct an authority to modify its plan in a specified manner prior to adoption. These could presumably be used to require Wrexham Council to amend its draft LDP in accordance with the Inspectors’ Report and then progress towards adoption.

  4. In any event, non-adoption of the LDP will not make it disappear. The conclusions and recommendations of the Inspectors will have significant weight and Wrexham Council may struggle to resist planning applications for development on proposed allocation sites.

  5. Delays in the preparation of the LDP have resulted in housing delivery being suppressed whilst the continued lack of an up-to-date plan means that it does not have an effective trajectory against which to monitor the delivery of new housing. Going forwards, this might increase pressure for “speculative” planning applications relating to the development of unallocated sites (including those that were not proposed for allocation in the draft LDP). The Council might struggle to defend itself at appeal against such proposals.

All eyes are now on the Welsh Government to see how it responds. A decision not to intervene could set a dangerous precedent for other authorities across Wales to refuse to adopt LDPs that have been found to be sound. The effect of this might be to stall development, economic growth and housing delivery across the country.
At a time when Wrexham is riding high in the football world, the opposite has happened in respect to planning. If the 27 members that voted not to adopt the Wrexham LDP think that this is the end of the matter, they are likely to be very disappointed. Up-to-date LDPs allocate land for housing and employment, leading to the creation of jobs and providing modern homes that meet people’s need.  Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny have helped to put Wrexham back on the map and the Council must adopt an ambitious and up-to-date LDP if the City is to grow in line with the ambitions of the football club.


[1] The effect of new phosphate targets on housing delivery in Wales (lichfields.uk).