Why less is more for local planning

27 / 05 / 2016

Too much fiddling with the planning system is crippling the ability of planners to create plans. What politicians need to do is set a sensible course and let things settle, argues Jay Das.

This article first appeared in The Planner, the magazine of the Royal Town Planning Institute on 20 May 2016 — http://www.theplanner.co.uk.

The Housing and Planning Bill is at the House of Lords committee and, once enacted, it will provide the communities secretary with extensive rights to step in and direct the preparation of local plan/development plan documents or issue them himself.

Meanwhile, the Local Planning Expert Group (LPEG) published its report in March, setting out its recommendations on how local plan-making can be made more efficient and effective. The LPEG report, which has received widespread support, contains a plea that the government should not cherry-pick recommendations such that only some of the proposals are taken forward.

One of the key themes of the report is the need for less change – the barrage of change either through acts of Parliament, regulation, national guidance or ministerial statements needs to be reduced.

Since the enactment of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which was intended to codify planning laws, we have had the Planning Act 2008, Planning and Energy Act 2008, Localism Act 2011, Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 and Infrastructure Act 2015.

That’s not to mention the countless regulations and guidance issued pursuant to each Act and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG). The LPEG recommends that the NPPF is reviewed only once every five years and the NPPG changes are limited to, say, once every six months.

If local plans are to be delivered in short order (by March 2017 or March 2018 where the plan predates the NPPF) some of the key recommendations by LPEG will need to be adopted and these include:

  • Limiting the evidence required to achieve legal compliance;
  • Confirming that a simple sustainability statement would be sufficient to meet legal requirements;
  • The scoping back of local plan requirements such that they only deal with “strategic” issues;
  • Amending the “soundness” test so that the local plan need only be an “appropriate strategy”;
  • Providing clear guidance on a shorter/standardised approach to calculating housing need; and
  • A national concordat between the county council network, the district council network and central government to agree to speedy performance.

Most stakeholders involved in the development process generally agree that local authorities are best placed to prepare their strategic plan documents. Although the bill gives the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government the power to intervene – and the latest study by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners states that 21 authorities could be at risk of intervention – save for exceptional cases it is likely that mass intervention would be considered a failure of the system – after all, it is a local as opposed to a central plan. The streamlining proposed by the LPEG, however, if adopted, would make it easier for the secretary of state to intervene to produce a strategic document.

The LPEG also recommends that local authorities are incentivised to deliver plans. Withdrawal of the New Homes Bonus, together with the requirement that local authorities pay the secretary of state’s costs of intervening to produce local plans (contained in the bill), could provide a financial incentive for many authorities to comply. The mere prospect of decisions being made at appeal has not to date deterred many authorities from failing to produce up-to-date plans.

The willingness of politicians to nail their colours to the mast and set out clear policies (removing legal hurdles) as recommended by the LPEG and then to leave the system alone to provide a stable environment within which plans can be promoted and adopted will be the key to success. Is this likely, as we hear calls for further reviews of the NPPG??

Further Information

For further information on the issues raised in this article, please contact Jay Das on jdas@wedlakebell.com