What is stopping councils from making plans?

What does it say about a council if they haven’t bothered to produce a core strategy? Last week I reviewed the local development schemes of about sixty local planning authority websites. I needed to know when they were planning to publish their core strategies. I was genuinely shocked to find that many of them seemed to have stopped developing spatial plans altogether.

The requirement to produce a core strategy has been in place since 2004. Core strategies were supposed to be plans that could be written in about two years. Six years later, the planning community isn’t that shocked to find that only half ofEnglandhas a plan. We’ve known for a long while that, on average, core strategies take longer than two years to complete. But how can so many authorities still be so far behind?

The websites I trolled through didn’t explain much. Some authorities haven’t updated their website since before Christmas. Others have a local development scheme that states they plan to submit the core strategy in 2014! What will they use between now and then? An outdated plan could be worthless in a system that is undergoing such significant reform.

The Localism Bill and the implications it will have for planning were mentioned frequently as a reason for pausing work on the core strategy. How can this be? Our biggest message to planners and councillors has been: get your plan in place! Without a local plan, councils will have nothing to use as the basis for up-to-date and informed decisions on development proposals.

Regional policy is effectively gone and national policy will soon be significantly reduced. The presumption in favour of sustainable development will make it very difficult to refuse permission unless there is a very good local reason for doing so. Have a look at these recommendations for the national planning policy framework if you want to see how this could work in practice. 

Planners, academics and consultants have spent a lot of time trying to explain why core strategy production moves so slowly. As an organisation, our whole purpose for existence is to help councils get a plan in place. I’ve spent months assessing the impact of our support to authorities and questioning whether and how it was helping. Unfortunately, I still don’t know the answer.

It was easier to accept the barriers to producing plans back in 2008. There were so few plans in place that it seemed like everybody was in the same boat. But now, it feels like there is a much wider divide between those with a plan and those without.

Are local authorities giving up on plan making? Are politicians putting pressure on officers to hold back? Is there nobody left to do the work after the local authority budget cuts? Or am I just blowing this whole thing out of proportion and actually, it’s not that big of a deal?

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7 thoughts on “What is stopping councils from making plans?

  1. Two main reasons. Firstly, having introduced a system, the last government couldn’t leave it alone, so they changed the nature of core strategies fundamentally 3 years in, thus setting virtually all councils back to square one in their work. Secondly, the (largely unco-ordinated and still often vague) burden of proof implied by PPSs etc has frightened Councils worried about “unsound” ratings. They are still recovering from these setbacks. And, of course, with national policy about to disappear in its current form and with no idea what is to replace it you cannot blame planners for sighing, and yet again holding back. Oh, and no, PAS guidance hasn’t been much help, mainly being concerned in gold-plating things to the point of absurdity.

  2. We are in a Growth Area and our Members want a plan. However, we are caught between a rock and a hard place, especially after CALA 3. All our evidence is that our RSS targets are unachievable as a result of the current and on-going economic climate, but what we believe to be a challenging target is unlikely to be in general conformity with the RSS. Is there any choice but to wait untime the law changes

  3. We keep being told that we must have an up to date plan in place, but at my authority we do have a UDP that was produced 5 years ago and is not exactly ‘out of date’, which is one of the reasons why it has taken us till now to get the Core Strategy prepared. Do we know exactly how ‘up to date’ is going to be defined? Will a CS adopted in 2006 be ‘up to date’ but a UDP adopted in 2006 be ‘out of date’?

  4. Speaking as someone responsible for a newly adopted Core Strategy (a mere 4 years 10 months after adopting our UDP Review…) I think there is probably a major problem with people not wanting to “bite the bullet” and publish / submit. We made good use of the PAS critical friend service which gave us the confidence to proceed – I would strongly recommend that others take advantage of similar opportunities.

    I suspect, also, that in the current cash-strapped times, strategic planning teams are being put under pressure to prepare a plan that is more flexible, allowing it to be all things to all developers / local communities / politicians whenever non-planning priorities scream loud enough – this is probably of particular note in Council’s where there are aspirations to sell off Council assets to help balance budgets and where planners are probably under considerable pressure to not put any policy constraints in the way of maximising value, regardless of evidence, emerging strategies developed with full commnity input.

  5. Helen’s survey doesn’t suprise me but it does worry me. LA planners want to be taken seriously by government but too many keep failing to deliver the goods. It’s playing into the hands of those who, possibly for ideological reasons, have little sympathy for planning.

    OK, there are lots of reasons why it has taken time to get DPDs adopted. As Simon points out, until failry recently, it was damn hard to get core strategies declared sound by the Inspectorate. Numerous councils had to withdraw core strategies before Examination – that was hardly an incentive to others to crack on! Another, linked, reason was the absurdly high expectation of the amount and quality of the evidence base required. Many councils found that very onerous. A further reason was that RSS and PPS kept being prepared / reviewed and so the ground kept shifting.

    That said, the previous government and the Inspectorate had, in the last couple of years, pretty much eased up on onerous requirements and procedures; PDG had provided resources and the logjam was beginning to ease. But we know that timely preparation of DPDs requires project management skills, corporate support, resources and political courage. All ingredients that can too often be missing. Then Mr Pickles comes along and all the fainthearts interpret his stance as an excuse to take their foot off the strategic gas. This happens to coincide with cuts (or even just the threat of future cuts) in council planning budgets and we end up where we are. What a pity. Once momentum on plan making is lost, it’s hard to pick it up again.

    Incidentally, in my previous life as a council chief planner, I found PAS to be very effective in training and sharing of best practice. I don’t think they “gold plated” their advice, I found it to be pragmatic but challenging. However, if I may be permitted to moan – after leaving local government, I am no longer wanted by PAS, despite having trained as a peer supporter and being willing to continue to share what knowledge and experience I have. Budget issues have probably got something to do with this but I’m sure that low cost approaches could be found.

  6. I warmly welcomed the change from the traditional approach. The earlier challenge was to get it (the core strategy) ‘right’ for our ‘place’ and somehow also get it conformant to the RSS – in many aspects there was apparently irreconcilable conflict between the two. Even agreeing what is ‘right for our place’ is a significant challenge if you take it seriously.

    Now there are more not fewer challenges, for example:
    – to understand against what ‘external’ criteria we will be tested
    – to understand the risks of real innovation – as we apply genuinely new thinking to the needs of our place, with outcomes that (as should be expected) differ rather sharply from the core strategies of neighbouring authorities

    Given the twenty year time frame, external pressure to ‘get it in place quickly’ flies in the face of the central tenet of good project management – start very slowly, because at the beginning you know precious little about the project! If the choice is between ‘getting it right’ and ‘get it in soon’, in the face of uncertainty about the threat of ‘presumption’, I’d prefer to get it right.

  7. As an interim manager, having successfully taken a Core Strategy through to adoption in an Inner London Borough and looked across the piste at other LDFs, apart from the issues raised above, I strongly suspect that the project management of the process is underrated and often under-resourced. If project management aspects, including responsibilities and accountabilities, are not clearly set out and given absolute prominance, delivery is always likely to continually slip.

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