Standard Method ‘advisory’: what’s exceptional about that?

A planning journalist has asked for my views on the proposal in the planning reforms/NPPF consultation that the Standard Method-derived housing number becomes ‘advisory’ only. Do I think it will mean councils will plan for fewer homes?

For me the ‘advisory’ thing is not that significant a change. The important change here is what follows later in the paragraph – the extent to which it will be easier/clearer for councils to calculate a housing need number using an alternative approach.

The important change here… is the extent to which it will be easier/clearer for councils to calculate a housing need number using an alternative approach”.

Many councils are already considering alternatives to the Standard Method. My colleague Rachael Ferry-Jones and I have been advising councils considering it. We’ve found that one of the issues is understanding the difference between housing ‘need’ and ‘requirement’. The terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably (including by myself). Below I have set out some thoughts based on the discussions we’re having with councils and weaved into this my thoughts on the NPPF consultation.

The basics aren’t changing

I think it’s helpful to start with what isn’t changing – the way that housing numbers in plans are arrived at. The indicative changes to the NPPF wording in Para 61 include additional wording that states that the ‘outcome of the standard method is an advisory starting-point mphasis).

Planning Practice Guidance (PPG)  currently says: ‘Authorities should use the standard method as the starting point when preparing the housing requirement in their plan’. In my view not a lot has changed; the word ‘should’ in the PPG is there in the sense that it is the recommended (but not the only) approach. The word ‘advisory’ is being used similarly to indicate that (as has ever been thus) that this number is not necessarily the number you have to plan for.

The number you have to plan for is the housing ‘requirement’ – the number that you end up with having taken the ‘need’ figure and considered the effect of constraints etc. before reaching the final figure.

We’ve been using this when we talk to councils:

Exceptional Circumstances to become ‘Local Characteristics’(?)

Hence, to my mind, the most significant change is not so much the Standard Method-derived number becoming ‘advisory’. It is how ‘exceptional circumstances’ (to justify using an alternative approach) will be re-cast that is of most significance. At the moment ‘exceptional circumstances’ aren’t defined, and from the advice to councils that I have seen, they face an almost impossible task to justify/establish that circumstances exist exclusively to/in a single place.

The NPPF proposed wording also says: ‘… also propose to give more explicit indications in planning guidance of the types of local characteristics which may justify the use of an alternative method, such as islands with a high percentage of elderly residents, or university towns with an above-average proportion of students’.

It appears that the term ‘exceptional circumstances’ is going to be dropped in favour of ‘local or (‘particular’) characteristics’. The students thing alone opens this up considerably for many places. The ‘more explicit indications’ could create a clearer route for councils to decide whether they are in a position to use their own approach to calculating housing need.

Yes this number may be lower than that derived from the Standard Method, but it isn’t guaranteed, and still needs to be agreed – how low is low enough?

Yes, an alternative approach may yield a number lower than that derived from the Standard Method, but it still a starting point and isn’t guaranteed to be lower. The number still needs to be agreed – how low is low enough? It still needs to be deliverable. And whatever method is eventually used it needs to be evidence based, reflecting current and future demographic trends and market signals and, for now, don’t forget the ‘unmet needs’ of neighbouring areas.


Transitional Arrangements for Local Plans: Top Ten ‘asks’  

Since my last blog on transition, I’ve been surprised at how quiet things are on this topic. At the PAS conference (Wolverhampton, July 2022) I presented a few ideas and hypotheses about the transition from the present planning system to the new ‘Levelled Up’ one. These are set out below along with some feedback from the conference attendees.

Some movement starting…?

The recent letter from Greg Clarke urging PINS not to fail Local Plans over the Summer may signal that some announcement is afoot (the heralded NPPF prospectus?) in Autumn. And the announcement from Dorset that ‘having spoken to Government’ that they’ll be taking a further few years to adopt their plan and (most interestingly) that they have asked to be ‘part of a pilot for a new national approach to local plans’.  

Why is it quiet?
Parts of the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill (LURB) are receiving lots of attention e.g. the new Infrastructure Levy or being PAS work-shopped (Environmental Outcome Reports). Other parts are slowly becoming embedded such as design codes and the (oh so slowly) creeping digital agenda. But its largely silent on how we move to a new system for making a local plan – the thing that is going to hold all of this together.

In May the then Minister Stuart Andrew encouraged us to ‘keep on planning’ and that  transitional arrangements were being worked on ‘at pace’. There was also some early conjecture about incentives to get your plan in place as soon as possible (e.g. that the 5-year housing land supply requirement may disappear for up-to-date plans).  

December 2023 – an incentive?

DLUHC seem to have stopped referring to this date, however I am working pretty much exclusively with councils going full steam ahead to get plans in place by Dec 2023. Over half the councils at our conference are as well. Greg Clarke’s recent letter to PINS may spell good news for these councils, especially those at examination right now. For these councils, the requirements of straddling 2 systems while plan making will be for others to grapple with. It is the councils that are about to start a review of their plans that are going to have to pick up the baton on transition soonest – they’ll be the front runners that will be learning how to plan in the new system.

The biggest change/challenge is the timetable

Take away all of the noise, the aspiration and the detail (where there is any) and the LURB system local plan and process looks pretty similar to what we currently have – policies, maps, 2 consultations, examination.

The big change is the expectation that the plan making timetable will be CUT IN HALF from an average 5 years to 30 months. Everything that LURB  is proposing on plan making will need to be condensed into at least half the time it currently takes. That is eye-watering. The ‘speeding up’ comes from 2 broad directions:

  • The mechanics – there are the new time-saving elements to factor in; front-loaded consultation, National Development Management Policies (NDMP’s), streamlined (proportionate?) evidence bases, mandating infrastructure providers to engage, Environmental Outcomes Reports (EORs to replace SA/SEA) – all good ideas to save time.
  • The process – the proposals for local plan commissioners, Gateways Reviews, a replaced Duty to Cooperate – again all good ideas on paper but how will they work to reduce time in the overall process?

There has to be enough time factored in to learn about, test and integrate these new and adapted processes into our plan making activity.  How can we avoid a standing start? Hopefully more detail on these individual ‘speeding up’ elements and how they will all work together will be available soon. Once the detail begins to emerge, we have to be prepared / make time available to learn and bed things down. Anyone that has been in the improvement game knows that introducing improved ways / systems of working often causes a system to slow down in the short-term. Room and time have to be allowed to allow the changes to take root and for the first positive effects to begin to show and the learning transferred.

Less burden has to be accompanied by less risk

While changing the mechanics and inputs to the process we must also keep an eye on the more structural (and cultural to some extent) aspects of plan making that will need to change/adapt to make a new system work.

I can see how we will over time reduce the burden on evidence base production via digitisation as the updating of evidence in future becomes more streamlined, however there will be a period of bedding down. To deliver a system that requires a shorter and less information-intensive approach (e.g. 50-page Environmental Outcome Reports replacing sustainability appraisals) and a more proportionate and streamlined evidence base, the plan examination system has to adapt with it. There should also be some built-in recognition of / protection from legal challenge; QC’s are expert at finding chinks and gaps in the masses of evidence that support plans currently – how will a radically reduced evidence base hold up to the same scrutiny?

Front-loaded consultation and digitisation are heralded as the panacea’s for greater and better community consultation, and I think this is a broadly correct assumption. It does have to be more than reaching wider audiences through technology and presenting our plans and ideas on maps and using 3-D imaging – there is a fundamental requirement to make planning simple to understand – e.g. nothing digital or map-based is going to explain to our communities in logical terms how we currently arrive at the housing numbers we’d like them to accept. We can and must get better at all of this and we have to also be prepared to resource, manage and integrate greater levels of engagement as communities do become more planning ‘savvy’ and want to get involved to support and challenge what we are proposing in our local plans. Levels of engagement are already rising as communities, especially in constrained, and more and more councils are struggling to resource ever-growing consultation responses.

Transition basics

Back to my conference story. For the sake of starting a conversation/argument I presented a few made-up hypotheses about what transition might look like in terms of timing. Here’s what I set out:

  • Hypothesis 1 – December 2023 – the drawbridge goes down on ‘current system’ – councils will have to have their plan submitted by December 2023 otherwise the plan has to be prepared and produced in the new system under transitional arrangements.
  • Hypothesis 2 – January 2024 New NPPF and Regulations are set with the requirements for new system local plans

In this world, councils will fall into 4 broad categories:

  1. New System Plans – those councils intending to wait and begin their plan making process after January 2024. The first plans will be in place from June 2026.
  2. Current world plans submitted on or before end December 2023 – Those that submit their plan to the December 2023 deadline and will arguably not have to think about starting the process of getting a new system plan in place before 2028.
  3. Current / New World transition – those councils starting to review their plans now will find themselves straddling the current and new system completely – it’s for these councils that the transitional arrangements need to be clear – not least to avoid wasted work.
  4. New Unitary councils – have 5 years to get a plan in place – will/how will the transitional arrangement affect them?
My timetabled hypothesis for when councils at different stages of plan making will deliver their first 30 month plan.

So what to do in the meantime?

I understand the reasons so many plans are stalling and why many are waiting for the new system. Why carry on if a new NPPF (prospectus?) is imminent? Why waste time, effort and cost? Then there is the hoped-for arrival of lower housing numbers. But is this really doing the best by our communities? The waiting game comes with risk as local plans and polices age and become vulnerable to speculative development and confuses communities as plans are ‘pulled’ to protect them from too much development (housing) and then housing sites are granted permission on appeal and in places not even allocated in the plan.

My view – keep going where you possibly can

I am asked constantly by councils for my advice on pressing ahead/slowing down/stopping. My (non) answer is always the same; I ask the following 3 very broad questions;

  1. Do you have clear evidence that delaying, slowing, stopping the local plan will benefit all of the communities your council represents?
  2. Have you fully weighed up and quantified the risks / uncertainties for your place that the absence of an up-to-date plan creates for your communities and investors?
  3. Do you have the backing of your communities / investors for your preferred course of action?

The reasons for stopping and delaying can be either very narrow; “housing numbers are going to change” or very broad; “it’s too uncertain right now”. The narrow arguments betray a  massive misunderstanding about what the local plan is there for and that housing, while important, is not the only thing we plan for. The broader argument just doesn’t hold water – the world we plan in is constantly uncertain, it is one of the fundamental reasons we make plans in the first place.  

Plans will always needs evidencing, consulting on and need some form of testing/examination so I personally would recommend that councils keep their plan making and plan updating activity going. And I urge the government to consider in its transitional arrangements how it can reduce any burden (perhaps even ‘rewarding’) those councils that are, despite massive pressure to slow down or stop, demonstrably carrying on planning and trying to get their plans updated and in place.  

Local Plans & LURB: The Position on Transition

At PAS I organise and manage the support for councils making Local Plans. My main Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill interest is the transitional arrangements – how will councils be guided into the new system? The effectiveness of the support PAS provides hangs on understanding this. Word has it that these the transitional arrangements are hurriedly being finalised so hopefully we’ll see something soon.

While I wait, and to shape my thoughts, I’ve set out in simple terms below what I think the main scenarios/questions facing councils are. I hope to use this as a frame for thinking about the kinds of support councils might need and to get some wider (and hopefully better) views.

For most councils the questions will be: ‘what does this mean for our Local Plan?’ and ‘should we continue working on our local plan?‘. The answer how to proceed will reflect where you are in the plan making process.

The government is encouraging councils to get (‘current system’) plans in place asap, with Housing Minister Stuart Andrew recently acknowledging “….that work will be valuable work anyway”.

The government has also said alongside the Bill:

  “To incentivise plan production further and ensure that newly produced plans are not undermined, our intention is to remove the requirement for authorities to maintain a rolling five-year supply of deliverable land for housing, where their plan is up to date, i.e., adopted within the past five years. This will curb perceived ‘speculative development’ and ‘planning by appeal’, so long as plans are kept up to date. We will consult on changes to be made to the National Planning Policy Framework.”

This 5 year land supply thing is significant I wonder if this refers to plans being made now? There are 4 main transition scenarios and questions facing local planning authorities as I see it: 

Scenario 1 – The Local Plan has been submitted for, or is at examination right now

  • Key questions:
    • If found sound, will our plan be ‘up to date’ in terms of not requiring a 5-year housing land supply?
    • Are we facing any increased risks due to the proposals in / statements made about the LURB e.g. our plan being withdrawn from examination or not being adopted even if it is found sound?
    • Will we be required to do an immediate review of our plan under the new system?
    • How will we be affected by the new data standard requirements?
    • When should we begin preparing our LURB local Plan?
    • How will the ‘weighting’ of National Development Plan Policy operate for us?

Scenario 2 – Local Plan production / update is advanced (e.g. at least at Reg 19 stage) and aiming for December 2023 adoption:

  • Key questions:
    • Will there be an advantage/incentive (outside of simply having an up to date plan in place) for continuing to work towards getting our plan adopted by December 2023? 
    • If found sound, will our plan be classed as up to date in terms of not requiring a 5-year housing land supply?
    • Are we facing any increased risks due to the proposals in the LURB e.g. a challenging timetable, Duty to Cooperate challenges, examination issues – could the plan be delayed in favour of the ‘new, simpler, quicker’ system?
    • How will we be affected by the new data standard requirements?
    • When should we begin preparing our LURB local Plan?
    • How will the ‘weighting’ of National Development Plan Policy operate for us?

Scenario 3 – Local Plan production / review advanced, adoption planned for 2024

  • Key questions:
    • Will there be a transition period that allows us to continue preparing our plan under the current system post e.g. December 2023?
    • How much of the work we have, and are preparing to undertake will not be required or not fit for purpose post reforms e.g. when will data standards and new Sustainability Appraisal (Environmental Outcomes Report) requirements affect the work we’ve already done?
    • The Infrastructure Levy will change the way we plan for affordable housing and other infrastructure requirements to support development through planning policy. How do we take account of this?
    • What is the risk of us pausing to enable us to prepare a plan under the new system?
    • How will the ‘weighting’ of National Development Plan Policy operate for us?

 Scenario 4 – Not currently reviewing the Local Plan / early thinking.

  • Key questions:
    • How much work do we do while we await the transitional details?
    • What can we start doing now?
    • How do we work with Government to engage in the “Test” and “Learn” approach to some areas of reform?

Once we understand more on this we can begin to build our support programme. Many practical things aren’t going to change – the need for good project management, effective work on strategic issues, good evidence bases and effective engagmnent of members – so the focus of our current support work will roll on for a while.

Help me look ahead – I’m bound to have missed some key questions and scenarios – help me build a better picture.

Tellin’ Stories… plan making in a changing planning system

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.

Green Belt

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.

Other issues

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).

PAS Support

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 ( for more information about our plan making support work.

Local Plans, White Paper, Transition – which way to jump?

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”
― Oscar Wilde

I’ve learned during my time at Planning Advisory Service (PAS), that whenever big changes are afoot that it’s best to leave the ‘hot takes’ to the clever bloggers and tweeters, and to sit back, listen, and then reflect. We dance very carefully between helping local planning authorities (LPAs) understand and respond to change and how much (or usually little) civil servants are at liberty to tell us about the factors that will affect their choices. 
I’ll leave others to trade blows over the imagined planning system utopia/dystopia, to focus on the very real and practical ‘today’ issue that LPAs are asking us for a steer on – ‘should we carry on with our plan production under the current system?’ – not an unreasonable question when you consider the cost and resources involved in creating a local plan, the many different stages councils are at, and that a complete re-writing of the planning system as we know it is being heralded.

The answer (today) is ‘Yes’…
A qualified, multi-layered ‘yes’. A few versions of ‘yes’. An ‘it’s still only a consultation’ yes. Have I layed that on thick enough? When you consider the potential answers and the potential implications this all becomes truly mesmerising. It feels like folly to even think about these potential answers while what we have is ‘only’ a consultation; nothing is set in stone (yes I know that sounds naive), and with 300 odd LPAs there could be 300 or so different scenarios. To make it easier on myself I have simplified things by making a few assumptions based on what I ‘know’.

Is 2023 still relevant to plan making?
The government was clear from the very start of the Covid-19 lockdown that the 2023 deadline for councils to have an up to date plan remains. There’s nothing in the White Paper and the comments from Ministers about the 2023 deadline – this suggests that this is still a hard deadline that councils are expected to meet. To labour a previous point, we are still operating in the current planning system – nothing has changed. It didn’t change for Covid-19 and there is no mention of it changing for the White Paper.

What do we know?
The White Paper tells us:

  • New local plans are to be produced within 30 months of legislation coming into force, or 42 months if the local plan was adopted in the 3 years prior to legislation coming into force;
  • All LPAs to have ‘new style’ local plans ‘to be in place by the end of ‘the parliament’ (Planning For The Future page 74); assuming they mean this parliament i.e. May 2024.

The current planning system tells us: All LPAs to have up to date (‘current system’) local plans in place by 2023.

What does this mean?
To get a ‘new system’ local plan in place by May 2024, legislation will have to be in force by December 2021 (just go with it – I’m no expert on the Fixed Term Parliament Act). Councils find themselves in one of 5 main scenarios:


ScenarioNew style plan required byoptions on what to do?
Current Plan will be more than 3 but less than 5 years old in Dec 2021, no plans to review it.May-24Make a new style plan once the new legislation is in force.
Current Plan will be less than 3 years old in Dec 2021, no plans to review it.May-25Make a new style plan once the new legislation is in force.
Reviewing plan and LDS Adoption date is on or before Dec 2021May-25Finish current plan to meet 2023 deadline, start new plan when legislation is in force.
Reviewing plan and LDS Adoption date is between Dec 2021 and end 2023, current plan over 3 years old in Dec 2021May-24Finish current plan to meet 2023 deadline, start new plan when legislation in force.
Reviewing plan and Adoption date is between Dec 2021 and end 2023, current plan less than 3 years old in Dec 2021May-25Finish current plan, start new plan when legislation in force.
Over-riding scenario: assume Legislation is in force by Dec 2021

This means that some councils could be starting to make their ‘new style’ plan while still finishing their old one. It could also mean that hundreds of councils will be making plans in sync – is the Planning Inspectorate ready for this? Can a new planning system really be delivered in this way and in this timeframe?

Could this all result in a colossal waste of time?
Glass half-full time; let’s talk about opportunities and investment. Whatever happens, councils need up-to-date frameworks for making decisions, and work being undertaken now will all be relevant preparation and monitoring to feed in to the next version of our local plans whatever form they take. If you are early on in the process of plan making/review then it is probably worth considering how your plan proposals might look in the proposed new system. There is nothing to stop you thinking about how your area might look categorised as growth, renewal, protection. Why not start thinking about a more rationalised evidence base? And, one of the things that isn’t going to change is the march of the digital planning system – there are many already advanced projects looking at local plans and back office systems that councils can test and help develop – talk to us at PAS, our friends in MHCLG digital land team or LocalDigital about how you can get involved. 

And remember, we still have 2023 and with that remains the current system of intervention, presumption etc.

A many-layered cake
Setting out the above is in many ways the simple bit. There are lots of nuances and details that define each council’s position. For example, those councils currently early on in the plan preparation stage / approaching Reg 18 consultation were already questioning the relevance of their evidence base due to the effects of the pandemic, and can now see the prospect that the type/weight of evidence they are working on/commissioning may not even be a requirement in the new system.

Then there are those at Reg 19 and beyond who broadly seem to be intending to carry on, but even these councils are being questioned by politicians as to the wisdom of continuing until the potential implications of the White Paper are fully understood.  

If only it was just the White Paper proposals LPAs that were feeding this question.  Layered onto this is the post/ongoing Covid-19 impact on transport/retail/town centres, values and viability, the recent changes to the Use Class Order, the new standard method for calculating housing need, PD changes and we also have the Local Government Devolution White Paper. Shall I also mention the Green Restart / Climate Emergency? 

So, the answer (today) is ‘Yes’ – keep making local plans
Yes, a qualified, multi-layered ‘yes’ to keeping going with your ‘current system’ local plan preparation/review if you are in the middle of it or planning to do so before December 2021. And don’t forget of course that all of the above could (and probably will) be shot to pieces as each day goes by.

Remember – it’s a consultation…
None of the above is true. Pure speculation on my part.  Nothing has changed yet. LOTS to be discussed, ironed out, explained and shaped, and can this all really be ready to go in December next year? For such fundamental proposals to take hold across the system, for local plans to be re-written, for ‘culture change’ to take hold it will be 5 -10 years before any new national system is properly established won’t it?

What can’t be disputed/hasn’t changed is that councils need an up to date framework in place for making planning decisions while we wait to find out what the new system looks like and proper and clear transitional arrangements are in place.  

What is PAS doing?
Massive change is going to happen. Local councils have to respond, and carry on.
We will be supporting the consultation process with a series of events from mid-September, and more generally we are planning to provide support to councils with weighing up their options on ‘which way and how to jump’, and once they are decided, help with some of the practical plan making implications. Which, if I am right about the above, will mean ‘blended’ support around the traditional current system plan making requirements and helping prepare to deliver a ‘new system’ Local Plan. 

Digital Local Plans – Flintstones before Jetsons

For a while now PlanTech projects have been making steady progress e.g. digital front/back-offices, validation systems, evidence bases and recently PAS team completed an ‘Alpha’ project on digital data standards for local plans with colleagues at Dxw. Having had our digital appetites whetted, we’re giving ourselves a bit of room to use what we’ve learned so far to explore what might be around the corner for “digital local plans” (a ‘Beta’ project maybe?) and whether we should (or could) do something to help.

Starting in the right place
As a starting point we are asking ourselves whether we know (or even have some nouns to describe) what a digital local plan is, what it’s made of and how it might be packaged. There is no shortage of those that agree that a digital plan is a good idea and plenty of people including ourselves “imagining if it did this…” or wondering “wouldn’t it be great if it did that…”. but there aren’t that many clear articulations out there of what is a “digital local plan”? Who it is for? and How is it better? It needs to have a clear purpose and benefits and once we understand this, we can begin to establish the steps involved in actually making one.

The near future
We’ve found it quite easy to wave our arms around and imagine the bright shiny future – but digital plan utopia is probably 10 years away. We want to understand what the near future looks like and involves – what should we start doing now and over the next 3 years as we move from PDF files to… ? How are we going to use and access a digital plan – controlling land use using data may fit naturally and ultimately onto some kind of map but local plans are about much more e.g. where do things like the “vision” etc. live, and how, practically, do we shift from 5 year plan reviews to working with a plan that is ‘living’ and dynamic?

A practical, pragmatic approach
During August we’re bringing a few people together to start to build a consensus. We have a suspicion that the “sprint method” that we are all starting to become comfortable with – the post it notes, the discovery / alpha / beta, the “user experience” and even the slack channel – means we may not spend enough time on thinking and talking. Some services are deep and haven’t been really thought about for decades.

Our starting point therefore is to bring together some practical and pragmatic people and have a chat. We want to kick around some difficult questions with a small group we trust and see what happens. And, perhaps, when we know how local government understands the domain and its own needs, we can expand the circle out.  For now this is all quite low-key, and if it has legs it will ultimately be something we do in public.

Climate Emergency – Opportunity from Risk

I’m trying to put together a package of support to meet a growing demand from Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) for help in understanding ‘what good likes like’ when it comes to local plans and climate change. I’ve discussed this with planners, climate change and sustainability experts, local politicians and lawyers – all with a view to understanding how PAS might help.

I have found it both fascinating and difficult in equal measure; fascinating as there’s no end to the scope of this agenda, and difficult for similar reasons – where do you focus, and how do you create an effective local plan response that is more than a set of ‘green-washed’ policies? Or risks failing the tests of soundness at an examination?

I thought I’d set out what I’ve learned, what is driving this increased demand for support, the potential solutions and why now is a good time for PAS to do something.  

Nothing’s new but everything’s changing…
The current conversations about a ‘green recovery’ are an obvious hook for any piece about climate change, but my starting point is before we’d even heard of Covid-19. Let’s go back to May 2019.

2019 was a watershed year for climate change – following many towns and cities across the UK, Parliament declared a climate emergency (the first national legislative body to do so) and set an enhanced national target of achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Over a third of councils have now declared their own emergency and many have set themselves even more ambitious timetables.

Many councils are still working out the detail of what their climate emergency declaration actually means (here’s an idea), but bold statements/promises have been made and invariably it is the local plan and planning teams that councils are looking to for the ‘response’. Last September, sensing some lethargy, the climate lawyers ClientEarth wrote to senior local councillors reminding them of the Local Plan’s legal obligations in supporting the delivery of the National climate change policy and targets.

Not another ‘one silo train’
None of this is new. Planners understand how to write local plans for sustainable development – it’s implicit in the plan-making process and discipline that the plan will consider, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

What has changed, and needs a response, is the environment that planners find themselves working in – this agenda has significantly ‘ramped’ up. LPAs need support to manage the increasing and accelerating expectations of their councillors and communities – who need a better understanding of the agenda and what can be achieved through the local plan, and to manage risk in the process as more and more interest groups get involved with the local plan examination process.

At the heart of this are two questions: how far can/could/should the local plan go, and how would you evidence more ambitious policies when (in most places) climate change expertise and experience at a local level is thin on the ground?

What risk does this present ?
There are 3 broad scenarios for LPAs. There are those for whom the council’s climate emergency declaration has happened close to or just after the local plan has been published. As they head towards examination – they are asking whether their plan now goes far enough, how to explain its limitations to councillors (many of whom were elected or are pinning re-election hopes on a ‘green ticket’), and whether an early review will be required. There are those that are about to publish their plan and are under increasing pressure to ‘go further’ – their concern is how changes might impact the timetable to adoption. And then there are those still early in the process, getting on with it but keen to quickly learn about what does/doesn’t work from their peers.

What should the support do and where should it focus?
In my mind the challenge boils down to how to get the most effective plan in place while reducing risk and saving time – classic PAS territory. There are 4 broad areas that local plans need to focus/strengthen:

  1. Stronger and clearer links to corporate climate change priorities, plans and targets;
  2. Developing a strong evidence base and better-aligned sustainability appraisal;
  3. Writing effective and challenging policy;
  4. Measurement – setting baseline, better monitoring and reporting methods;

New territory for many.  

Below I have set out my ideas to help pull all of this together. Truth is, I am still deciding what it looks like – but I never let a lack of a completely clear end-game prevent me starting something (momentum is the best way of achieving inspiration in my book). I am working on the following broad ideas to support plan-makers:

  • Engaging and training councillors and communities – Approaches to establishing a common understanding between councillors, communities and officers – what climate emergency means, and which policy options to explore, prioritise and fund;  
  • What does good look like? – Sharing examples of effective engagement, regional collaboration, evidence assembly and policy writing from the most forward-thinking councils;
  • ‘Climate Change Challenge’ – Creating some short, sharp ‘challenges’ to the early stages of the plan production process and then between Reg 18/19 to give LPAs an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their plan/policies (and perhaps better scoped and aligned Sustainability Appraisals);  
  • One place for good practice, guidance and examples – There is a dearth of good information, guidance, ideas and training out there but not everyone is aware of it, what it can do and where it applies. I’d like to gather this into one place and arrange it to reflect the different requirements and stages of the plan making process;
  • Access to the experts – Understanding the work and objectives of organisations involved in the fields of digitalisation/PlanTech, sustainable/modern methods of construction, decarbonised heating, climate change law and social justice. We’ll also look at closer collaborations with our peer organisations such as TCPA / RTPI / POS / CPRE;
  • Creating a support and knowledge-sharing network for frontline climate change plan makers.

Not straight-forward
Plan making can be complex and resource intensive. I understand the temptation to keep climate change issues at arms-length and to focus on the imperative to deliver housing numbers. Add to this issues of viability and all of the uncertainty/confusion about how far policy can push on energy performance/efficiency, and the task can seem quite daunting. I get it, and an overarching objective of this support is to share resources and build the capacity and confidence of a larger number of councils to push for the highest standards as a starting point.

Creating opportunity from risk
Two thirds of councils that have declared a climate emergency. They all need a credible corporate strategy and local plan to respond and deliver on it. This presents an interesting leadership opportunity. Can planning leverage increased corporate and political expectations to gain the required support and resources, and then create the evidence base and ambitious policy that will allow the local plan to push the boundaries on climate change? There’s arguably never been a better time to be as ambitious as we can be. 

Vision / Place Making
While I am looking at supporting LPAs with their imediate plan-making requirements, I don’t want to lose sight of the importance of having longer-term strategic approaches to ‘place’ as this is how the most significant impacts can be achieved.

Take viability (please, take it) – the impacts we can achieve by driving quality up/carbon emissions down using better design and more ambitious energy efficiency standards, while effective, result in the arguments and surrounding conversations about viability focusing at a housing unit level. Whereas when we are establishing, with our communities, visions at the level of ‘place’, climate change mitigation across the whole piece can be ‘designed-in’ from the very beginning. By creating places that consider the impact of where people live on how (and where) they have to travel to work, study, shop, relax and play, sustainability is built-in from the start.

Bringing everyone with us
According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), around 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction activities. The number rises to 45% when considering the whole of the built environment sector. This is an issue for planning, developers, builders, and architects not to mention supply chains and emerging new technology.

It’s a vast and interesting agenda, lots of players, lots of legislation, lots of good guidance – and lots of good intentions. But what could and should LPAs do to seize this agenda and get local plans at the forefront of delivering a zero-carbon future?

My view is that while it is far too big and complicated an area for planning to solve by itself, it is an opportunity for local government planning to show leadership and a united front, pushing local plans as far as they can go, and working with the development industry – pushing back on the appeals and working through the viability issues.

Right time – right thing to do?
It feels like the right time for PAS to help build on and support the plan-making work that councils are already doing and to try and link up with and learn from the best in the development sector. If there is one thing that this pandemic can teach us, it’s that you can never be too prepared or act too early in an emergency.

The support package I am planning to develop is a small but hopefully powerful start. Let me know if you think it’ll help and how it can be improved.   

Virtually Better Planning Committees

“Planning committee is the council’s ‘shop window’ – it is one of the rare opportunities the public get to see a council up-close, how it conducts itself, how it represents citizens and how it makes decisions. Let’s enhance that not lose it.”

COVID-19 has forced all of us into new ways of working (many of which we should have adopted years ago), and has had a quickening affect on bringing forward change and ingenuity. Improvement should also be part of the equation – I quite like this from Harvard Business School: leading and managing during a crisis – essentially the difference between managing the urgent without losing site of what’s important and what’s next.

I have been thinking along similar lines about planning committees as PAS prepares to release its ‘guide to setting up virtual committees’. As we respond to the immediate challenge of ensuring committees can operate and decision making can happen, let’s also:

  • Make things better – by reviewing/challenging some of our present thinking and ways of doing things;
  • Not make thing worse – in our rush to keep the wheels turning, let’s take care that our ‘solution’ doesn’t create a new barrier to public participation.

While we might change delegation arrangements in the short-term to ‘lighten the load’ of committee and create more streamlined and focused groups of members, we may find that shining the spotlight on established protocols and set-ups reveals a better way of operating into the future.

In the virtual world it’ll be even more important to do what good (but too few) committees already do to engage the public at committee – they explain to all present what is about to happen, who’s who, who does what, the rules on who can take part & how; how and when a decision is reached; and try to make the whole thing make sense and easy to follow. Ignoring these housekeeping fundamentals leaves observers feeling alienated and confused – it might be appropriate in the new world to allow or even promote some kind of broader engagement via social media.

So, if you are currently poor (or ignore) these fundamentals, this is your opportunity to dust things down and create a bit of shine in both the new virtual world and in the ‘old’ world (in whatever form that returns). As a checklist for a quick review I have put together a few general improvement questions that councils can challenge themselves with alongside establishing their virtual set up:

  • Are we clear about the role of planning committee – what are we here to do & what is our purpose – does this need to change in the short term?
  • How well do we explain to the public who’s who, what we do, how decisions are arrived at, and what’s allowed/not allowed?
  • Would it be clear to someone arriving at (or logging-in) to our committee what is happening or who is in charge?
  • Are the number/type of cases that committee see appropriate?
  • Do our delegation and call-in protocols support or undermine the purpose of committee?
  • Are we of an optimum size (e.g. is a committee with 8 members right? Is a committee of 18 members right? Is a committee where every councillor is a member right?).
  • Do we need more than one committee e.g. strategic/area?

Yes let’s use this period to gear up to deliver a workable solution to COVID-19 at pace, and yes let’s use the opportunity to use technology to make everyone’s lives easier, but let’s not forget that many of our planning committees could do with a dust-down. Planning committee is the council’s ‘shop window’ – it is one of the rare opportunities for the public to see a council ‘face-to-face’, how it conducts itself, how transparent it is, how grown up it is, how it represents citizens and how it makes decisions.

Let’s enhance that and not lose it. Let’s not give anyone an excuse to disengage with the planning process.