Simon Peake WYG

Proactive planning required for Northern Powerhouse

Housing Minister Brandon Lewis’s ministerial statement last Wednesday, which set a deadline of early 2017 for all local authorities to have produced an up-to-date local plan, had something of the tone of a stern parent writes Simon Peake of WYG Manchester.

Failure to meet this deadline will result in the government intervening to ‘arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people…’

But with only 29% of authorities in the North West adopting a plan since 2012, and similar figures elsewhere, there is a problem. If we are to deliver a Northern Powerhouse a much more proactive approach to planning will be required.

Clearly, the Government sees the planning system as a major obstacle in the delivery of the housing – the statement is another kick at the already battered planning football. The true situation is, of course, much more complex. It is precisely the policy gap created by the delay in adopting local plans that has enabled many recent residential planning applications to succeed. Nevertheless, there is a need for action if we are to return to the ‘plan-led’ system that we are meant to have.

A look at the latest figures reveals the scale of the problem which may be even greater than suggested by the minister. The figures he quoted looked at local plans that were adopted since the Planning Act of 2004. But more recent dates shows the real issues. Publication of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 should have been a trigger for all local authorities to ensure that they had an up-to-date plan, or else risk their policies becoming outdated and redundant. Yet only 30% of local planning authorities have adopted a local plan in the three years since, meaning that 70% risk the loss of local planning control to national guidance. This may be a good or bad thing depending on your position, but it certainly does not reflect the ‘plan-led’ planning system that was restated in the NPPF. We must also recognise that changes made by the new Government complicated the plan-making process: for example, the requirement to objectively assess needs and the introduction of neighbourhood plans.

Furthermore, less than half of local authorities have adopted a local plan (or core strategy – the terminology periodically changes) within the last five years. It is difficult for any plan to realistically predict needs and circumstances beyond a five-year period, and so this represents a potential issue.

These figures may suggest major failings in planning policy departments but the problems must be fundamental if they are shared by so many authorities across the country. There may be issues in dealing with public pressures, political decision-making or a backlog of work by planning inspectors. In the past, some inspectors have interpreted test of soundness very rigorously, hence a letter to the Inspectorate from Greg Clark to direct them otherwise. But the Government will have to do more than write letters and recommend early reviews if it is to solve this problem. Instead they must get to the bottom of the question of why local authorities are taking so long to adopt Local Plans, and provide an effective solution.

To make a real difference, fundamental changes will need to be made to the current statutory process of preparing and adopting plans and also to the way that planning departments are delivering their policy-making service. We cannot forget that the call to accelerate plan-making is being made at a time of massive cuts to local authority budgets, with planning departments often first in line to feel the consequences. Creative thinking is required both nationally and locally to solve the problem, rather than another kick at the planning football.

  • Simon Peake is an associate planner at WYG in Manchester

Your Comments

The Government are yet to define what they mean when they talk about having a Local Plan in place – theoretically a plan could still be up-to-date even if it predates the NPPF and, conversely, a plan adopted since the NPPF could still be out-of-date due to not having a 5 year housing supply or similar. The difficulty is that it really isn’t that straightforward. Matters are complicated further if you look at areas like Greater Manchester where some districts have all or part of a Local Plan in place but other don’t, but all are awaiting the (much encouraged by government) joint Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) before progressing anything more locally – and GMSF isn’t scheduled to be adopted until 2018. Would the government really intervene in a Greater Manchester district which is awaiting the GMSF before progressing its own Local Plan?

I’m amused by the suggestion of ‘planning policy departments’ – in most councils that I have worked with planning policy is a small team of, perhaps, half a dozen planners at most, with limited (if any) financial resource to buy in extra expertise or capacity.

By Planning policy geek

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