The key to a sensible planning system is sensible and workable planning policy at the local level. The reality is that putting policies in place takes time, but once that is done then reviewing them is much easier. The 1990s were spent adopting the district-wide local plans introduced by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 and the unitary development plans required by 1980s local government reorganisation. That done -–and by the early 2000s it was basically done – the development plan reviews were progressing in good time and with few problems.
Unfortunately Government proceeded by the adage of ‘Wait until it’s no longer broken and then fix it’. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 tore up the now functioning system, and required it to be replaced by an entirely new set of documents, prepared in a different way, on different principles, in a wholly unrealistic timescale. Added to that was a layer of statutory regional plans, a ludicrous set of acronyms and a set of rules governing relations between documents which assumed that the system worked in some orderly progression from the Minister to a village design guide.
The result was shambolic delay, documents being withdrawn or held up and an increasing policy vacuum.
The abolition of the regional strategies took away one level of complexity and delay, but has emphasised one of the few good points of the 2004 reforms – the need for local authorities to make tough decisions in their planning policies. How much and where and why need to be determined and explained. Moving away from the fetish of lots of inter-related local policy documents, and allowing authorities to produce a single or multiple local plans, allows sensible and efficient preparation.
However there is a lack of up to date plan coverage. Part of the problem is that the time taken to revoke the regional strategies has encouraged some delay. Since a lack of plans and a lack of planning applications have led to a lack of a five year housing land supply in many districts, the failure to act more urgently might be a source of regret for many. However there are three difficulties with the plan preparation process. The first is the way in which the duty to cooperate has been applied by planning inspectors in some development plan examinations. The duty is to cooperate ‘in maximising the effectiveness’ of strategic plan making including to ‘to engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis’ and have regard to other public authorities’ plans. It is not a duty to agree nor a requirement for any formalised joint working and simply as a matter of ordinary language the effort required is proportionate and not that extensive. The application of the duty is a simple matter of considering the legislation: the National Planning Policy Framework and any departmental guidance does not affect whether the duty has been met. Whilst the headline cases of plans being withdrawn mask the number of plans which pass examination, other plans are being delayed and in some cases Inspectors have taken an excessive view of the legal requirements.
The real question – and this is the second problem - is that the soundness of a plan does depend in part upon whether it takes account of what is happening around it. A common approach across plan areas is helpful, but the democratic principle (which is what localism is here) does mean that neighbouring authorities may well disagree. The plan system does not force them into agreement, but does mean that each has to take account of what each other is or is not prepared to do. The final difficulty is the relationship between local plans and neighbourhood development plans. Councils will become increasingly dependent upon parish councils and neighbourhood fora to allocate sites. Whilst a neighbourhood development plan must be in general conformity with the strategic policies in the development plan, there will be tensions as to whether the neighbourhoods are making the right provision. In formulating their strategic and spatial policies, districts will have to be able to show that the sites will be found