Fixing the foundations for local plans


Building on the Government’s recent ‘Productivity Plan’ Planning minister, Brandon Lewis has stated that where local authorities have failed to produce a local plan by 'early 2017' the Government will intervene and write the plans themselves ('in consultation with local people').

By 2017 it will have been five years after publication of the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework or ‘NPPF’ – when the ‘genuinely plan-led’ system was laid out alongside a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

The minister says ‘action is required to ensure that all local authorities meet the standards already achieved by the best’ and berates those councils that still have no local plan in place.

However some aspects of the NPPF, such as the ‘duty to co-operate’, defining ‘objectively assessed needs’ and reviews of Green Belt boundaries, are often easier in theory than in practice. For many councils the local plan process can be very expensive, uncertain and something of a game of ‘snakes and ladders’. Tensions appear between localism and technical assessments.

The District Councils’ Network (DCN), as the umbrella group for England’s 200 District Councils, last year worked with its members to identify both barriers to getting local plans in place and solutions, publishing a discussion paper ‘Streamlining and Supporting the Local Plan Process’.

The DCN put forward ideas that could reduce risks of local plans, introduce staged local plan ‘examinations’ and facilitate cross-boundary ‘strategic’ planning.

Other organisations, including the Planning Officers Society and RTPI, put forward similar ideas. These can complement other initiatives such as combined authorities and devolution.

In the minister’s statements there are signs we will see welcome refinements to the local plan system and we await the flesh on the bones. If we get this right - good tools, simpler processes, reduced risks and real incentives (including funding for infrastructure) - there’s a real win-win in the offing, critically for how we collectively meet our local needs for housing and jobs.

Communities want well planned development, the development industry wants an efficient and responsive planning system and councils want the right tools for the job.

The increasing ‘planning by appeal’ culture sucks resources and helps no one in the long-term. Government stepping in to do a council’s job is a point of last resort and no way forward.

We therefore look forward to the Government’s refinements truly helping councils keep local plans up to date, so we see the plan-led system heralded by the NPPF achieved in full.

We also look forward to seeing local planning authorities enabled by government to recover the full cost of its planning application service, a key element in supporting the drive to better productivity.

Jerry Unsworth is part-time planning adviser to the District Councils’ Network, a planning consultant and a former district council head of planning

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