The Local Plans Expert Group was appointed by the Minister for Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis, in September 2015. Its report proposes widespread reforms to the content and preparation of local plans. It might be helpful to discuss some of the factors which affected our thinking.
The first was the importance of local plans. Local policy enables an area-wide approach to be taken to planning and introduces a degree of coherence and consistency to decision making. It puts the local community – through their elected councillors – in charge. It also gives an opportunity for contribution and challenge to all those interested in an area’s planning. The response to our call for evidence was universally supportive of local plans, but often frustrated about how long the process has taken.
Of course, plans only work if they are in place, up to date and make the tough decisions about what, how much and where. Development management decisions which are taken on the basis of good planning principles and the National Planning Policy Framework are not a plan- led system, however justified the individual decisions are. Few plans are up to date. Only 31% of local planning authorities have plans examined since the publication of the NPPF and many of these are only strategic. Less than 20% of local authorities have a post-NPPF strategic and sites allocations plan. Some authorities are in a far worse position of having little in the way of plans under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 regime. Plan preparation has been slow. The average time between the publication of a submission draft plan and adoption is over 750 days. This is not the worse stage: it sometimes takes authorities years to produce a submission draft. Often multiple rounds of non- statutory consultation are carried out. One plan was the subject of five pre- submission consultations between 2011 and 2014, only two of which were statutory. It was subsequently found to be unsound and was withdrawn. Another authority carried out 12 sets of consultation, mainly on discreet aspects of their plan.
We were conscious not to repeat the mistakes of the 2004 Act. As at 2001, 16% of local planning authorities did not have local plans produced following the previous set of reforms in 1991. The then government decided to rip up the previous plan system and start again. Ten years after the 2004 changes, the same proportion of authorities did not have a plan under the 2004 regime. Telling authorities to start all over again would cause another decade of delay. Consequently our proposals are designed to improve the current system and to be taken up by authorities at whatever stage they have reached.
A major source of problems, delay and cost has been working out the Objectively Assessed Need for housing. We propose to simplify the calculation: taking the household projections and adding any uplifts for market signals (on affordability) and affordable housing needs. The OAN is not the housing requirement for the particular authority. That is a political decision, but the soundness tests should be tightened to expect authorities to ensure that their OAN is met in their or other authority areas, unless the adverse effects of doing so significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. The need cannot simply drop off the table. Joint working, including often joint local plans on strategic issues, should be part of the devolution arrangements for local authorities.
Our objectives for local plan processes were to improve local control over the plan content, promote efficient and effective plan making and to speed up and simplify the process. Those all work together. The initial (regulation 18) consultation will be widened to the public at large. Local planning authorities would be able to modify plans following the pre-submission consultation and there would be a further consultation confined to those modifications. This avoids the current difficulty that the Local Planning Regulations only provide for comments on the draft plan when it is too late for the local planning authority to change it. At the current pre-submission stage, local plans can only be modified on the Inspector’s recommendation if they are unsound. Part of improving the statutory consultation process is that non-statutory consultation stages ought not to take place. The result will be a simpler, clearer and shorter process.
Broadly the examination process works well and there was near universal support for this in the comments we received. Effective testing of plans will be strengthened by cutting down the evidence base to ‘strictly necessary’ documents. Other documents ought to be shorter and more focused. Sustainability appraisals should just explain whether and how the plan is sustainable development and not be strategic environmental assessments extended to economic and social matters. SEA reports ought to be more focussed on the issues that arise. There is not point producing 300 pages of tables with ++ and – entries if no one is going to refer to them. Local plan content can be reduced, in some cases quite dramatically.
These changes should allow a much quicker process and we propose a statutory timetable requiring a local plan to be adopted within two years of the start of the initial consultation on it. That will be a maximum period: partial reviews of local plans should progress quicker. A compact timetable promotes public involvement – people can understand where they are in the process – and also reduces the risk of issues changing during the plan making process and causing further delay.
The report, appendices, detailed recommendations and discussion papers of the expert group at available at: www.lpeg.org The Department for Communities and Local Government is inviting representations on our recommendations which should be made by 27 April 2016.
Richard Harwood OBE QC was the sole lawyer member of the Local Plans Expert Group.