As at December 2013 only 179 local authorities had Core Strategies or Local Plans that had been found sound or adopted. That figure represented only 50% of all local planning authorities across England and there have been a large number of Core Strategies which have been found unsound upon examination. Why have so many plans not made it through to adoption?
There are clear lessons from recent practice that if followed will ensure that plans have better chances of success. For anyone involved in promoting strategic land and development sites, the following will also be checks on the way in which a plan has been put together and evidence has been used to inform planning policy.
Here are a few tips from recent practice:
Get the story straight: Local plans with inconsistencies between their economic narrative and planning strategies are open to challenge. Economic growth objectives should be supported by planning strategy and land allocations. The economic vision for an area needs to be supported by a planning strategy which enables rather than constrains or displaces growth. This involves careful consideration not only of the extent to which population and employment is likely to change over the long-term, but whether there will be sufficient people in the labour force to facilitate economic growth.
Understand market realities: It is an inconvenient truth that the revocation of regional planning did not reform or simplify the way that housing and commercial property markets actually operate. Markets do not neatly conform to local authority boundaries – they zigzag across them. Those plans which have failed to grasp this, and the implications of this for meeting objectively assessed needs, have not fared well at examination. Check that the plan reflects what is happening in the whole market area and not just that covered by the local authority boundary. Failure to take into account real market areas runs the risk of demand being displaced or unintended consequences such as worsening affordability problems arising.
Check the supply response: Many authorities continue to reply exclusively on a supply of brownfield land to deliver enough homes and to help achieve economic growth. The reality is that this strategy did not yield enough homes to address the housing crisis even at the peak of the market. The added impediment to delivery is that many sites rendered unviable by the recession remain unviable today. While brownfield sites do play an important role in regenerating our cities and towns, they are not sufficient on their own to deliver against the scale of housing needed. A range of sites in different locations need to be provided to cater for all aspects of market demand. This applies to housing land and also land for business uses.
Use the best evidence available: Local plan evidence should be up to date. There is a wealth of current data and techniques available to all involved in the plan making process and those promoting sites. Check the age of all the evidence informing the plan and any assumptions used to forecast need and demand. Check and double check that the plan meets all the tests set out in the National Planning Policy Framework and National Planning Practice Guidance including consideration of market signals.
Plan with commercial realism: We are only just emerging from the recession, which had a devastating effect on the property industry. Local Plans need to be realistic about the ability of developments to sustain Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 contributions in the short to medium term as market confidence and values recover. Check assumptions relating to rates of delivery and viability of development across the whole plan period when taking into account the cost implications of planning policies.
With so many local plans stalling or failing at inspection, the upside is that there are many opportunities to learn lessons and improve plan making. After all, robust plans that positively assist the recovery of the North West's economy and build long term value in places are surely of common interest to both the public and private sector.
Richard Laming is director of economic planning at Turley Associates in Manchester and will be among the speakers at Place RESI 2014 on Tuesday 4 February.