All councils must have an up-to-date local plan in place by the end of 2023. The government’s ‘carry on planning’ message has been constant and consistent from the first Covid lockdown. Councils were encouraged to be innovative and legislation passed to keep things on track. While this remains the message, then the potential for government intervention remains where plans are not progressing quickly enough. So, what does ‘carrying on planning’ actually look like? What effect is the pandemic having? What about the ongoing reforms to the planning system? Here’s the story…
Tellin’ stories – Planning Advisory Service’s Gateway Review
In testing times, sharing stories helps us feel less alone and can inspire us to keep going. We’ve found that through our Gateway Review work, councils can be collectively encouraged to ‘carry on planning’.
Since January we’ve worked with councils with plans over 5 years old. Many have publicly announced delays to their timetable. Many are planning in some of the most difficult and constrained circumstances. It’s important for us all that planning authorities can tell their stories. Stories that demonstrate positive planning. Stories of what it’s like negotiating a difficult playing field. Stories that demonstrate how you can with the uncertainty in the system, not use it as a reason to delay.
So what does the Gateway Review do?
The ‘Gateway Review’ takes an independent look at the local plan production timetable/local development scheme. It assesses what stage the plan has reached, what’s left to do, the resources available to finish things off and the operational and political risks. In a nutshell :
- Is the production timetable realistic?
- What are the major risks to the timetable?
- How to mitigate the risks?
Old issues, new questions…
We’ve not discovered anything fundamentally new. But we are hearing new and different questions about familiar issues. We’re seeing gaps in national guidance coming into sharper focus. We’re seeing some subtle differences in having a plan examined under the 2019 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). There are also big decisions being made ‘blind’ where information doesn’t exist yet. Some of the effects and impacts of decisions made now won’t be known/felt possibly until examination which has all sorts of risk attached to it.
Duty to Cooperate
This is a requirement for all councils. Many have and still are negotiating it successfully. But it feels as though recently more councils are failing to demonstrate they’ve ‘met’ the duty. We all get that the Duty to Cooperate is not a ‘duty to agree’, but many are unclear about the lengths you are expected to go to. And more are even less clear about what meeting the duty looks and plays out like without an ‘agreement’.
In tightly constrained places, cooperation is not always easy, and politics are often polarised. There is uncertainty about the level of detail required. How do you demonstrate engagement “constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis”? Significant resources can be swallowed up doing this. When resources are stretched, some of this work can fall through the cracks while the planning team’s focus is on crucial technical and other evidence base work.
One of the thorniest issues is how housing needs are to be met across local authority boundaries. It’s particularly problematic where Local Plan production timescales differ across neighbouring local authorities. The standard methodology for calculating housing need and the 35% urban uplift (see below) has added additional numbers to many plans that were already creaking.
The 35% Urban Uplift
Many plans had reached or were reaching agreement on housing numbers and unmet needs. These are now being challenged and those places with good and effective partnerships are coming into their own. Each of the urban uplift cities are expected to accommodate the uplift within the urban area, so there is a process to go through to re-review and re-appraise capacity, sites, allocations, densities, brownfield land etc. This takes time and has a knock-on effect across all plans in some Housing Market Areas. Neighbouring councils do have the choice to carry on as they are, but they may face requests (late in the process) to accommodate the unmet needs of neighbours. This is risky and may lead to challenges to meeting the duty to cooperate.
Plan start dates
It took me a while to understand why this is an issue (and I am not sure I still fully understand). The question is largely about when can a plan period start to account for housing delivery during the plan making period? This affects councils preparing plans under the latest NPPF and the standard method for calculating housing need.
Plan periods traditionally link to the evidence base (need/projections/SHMA etc.). They’d then get examined and adopted with a start date rooted in the past. Often this would mean needing to accommodate an over or under supply at the time of adoption. Some plans currently in examination (under the transitional arrangements of the 2019 NPPF) have start dates in 2011 because the original projections started then.
Now, the standard method links to an annual requirement. So, there is arguably greater flexibility in deciding when the plan period starts. The decision has implications for compiling the evidence base and housing trajectory. There’s also the Housing Delivery Test. In some places it is advantageous to set a date as close to submission as possible. This means any shortfall in housing delivery (since plan preparation commenced) does not need have to be factored into the Local Plan housing trajectory. For others, it may be advantageous to back date their plan period to account for over-supply.
General advice is shaping up as:
- There is no specific instruction or guidance in legislation, national planning policy or guidance about when local plans should start (this implies some flexibility)
- The logical approach is to commence the plan period as close to the date of submission as possible. However, there is nothing to stop an authority from setting the start date earlier.
- The challenge is to find the ‘sweet spot’ that accounts for delivery and the age of the (entire) evidence base.
- The start date should be sensible/justifiable and not compromise any of the tests of soundness.
To release Green Belt land for development council’s must prove ‘exceptional circumstances’. They must examine all other reasonable options before releasing Green Belt land. This sequential approach includes considering brownfield land, density options, neighbouring authorities (duty to cooperate). But national policy and guidance does not mention a ‘green belt land review’. So, what to do if the sequential approach still results in unmet need?
Is the expectation that councils should undertake a Green Belt review (where applicable)? How else will they inform discussions with neighbouring authorities on unmet housing needs or fully satisfy the Duty to Cooperate?
What about a ‘presumption’ that only plans meeting housing needs in full go to examination? What are the implications? Can an authority refuse to consider any Green Belt release/review if local need cannot be met? The ambiguity may suit some places that have pledged to protect Green Belt land. This may delay plan making and result in longer independent examinations. Is there a ‘common sense’ approach? Consider the sequential land options, duty to cooperate, and a Green Belt Review together? You must be careful when advising councils on this.
Covid 19 – Evidence Bases.
The effects of the Pandemic on future working and living requirements etc. will not be understood for some time. The evidence supporting ‘today’s’ development needs will inevitably need revising at some point. Most places agree that evidence gathering should not stop. But there will need to be a pragmatic and practical approach by Inspectors. when plans are examined. Perhaps we’ll see the requirement of an ‘early review’ of an adopted local plan being used as a way of overcoming this potential issue?
That is all well and good for planners. But what about communities? They have genuine questions about the effect of the pandemic. People are experiencing changes to their working patterns and their economic situations. They are more engaged in conversations about future housing and space requirements. It is the council’s role to bring communities with them on new development. It is hard to explain to communities why development is based on current or pre-pandemic evidence. Add to this an explanation of the basis on which housing numbers are calculated and you get a very complicated message.
There are other issues. Changes to the Use Class Order. Delayed responses from Statutory Consultees. First Homes etc. I may cover these another time. There’s another perennial question – ‘what does the government actually mean by ‘up to date local plan by 2023’? Is it a plan submitted for examination? An examined and adopted plan? A plan that has been reviewed and not needed updating? That’s one for a future blog (probably by someone else).
These findings have the potential to affect what are already ambitious timetables in many places. Planning authorities will need to keep things under review and make sure that they are putting the necessary resources in place to keep things on track.
PAS is putting together support that will help councils move some of these issues on especially the duty to cooperate, their evidence base work and a thorough shake-down of project plans/programmes.
Keeping on keeping on
The Government’s ambition (requirement) to get plans in place by 2023 is as strong as it’s ever been. One of PAS’s jobs is to play back to Government these ‘global’ issues. We’ll work with central and local government to help councils steer a path to getting plans in place.
For PAS this means delivering support and sharing learning. It means supporting councils to make the tough choices they are facing. For Government, there is a need for some messaging around the ambiguities discussed above. For local planning authorities it is about keeping going. It’s about demonstrating progress and being able to clearly articulate their plan-making journey and the evidence for the choices and decisions they are making.
Contact Martin Hutchings (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information about our plan making support work.