Local Plans – will a prescriptive approach work - 12 Weeks of Planning (Episode 6)

 

By Paddy Kent Account Director at Newington Communications

Each week during the 12 week consultation, the Newington team will be analysing an aspect of the proposals in the ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals.

Read our latest analysis below to understand how the proposed planning changes will affect your future projects

 

This week, we look at the government’s ambition to reinvent the creation of Local Plans. Specifically, how the proposed prescriptive timeline will interact with local politics and elections.
 
The white paper has set out that local authorities, often presiding over the development of Local Plans for up to a decade, will no longer be masters of their own plan.

The government wants to set the numbers, and the timelines, but leave the Local Authorities in charge of allocating sites into the now famous categories: growth, renewal and protection.


Tory authorities will be hit by an increase in their housing targets.
Research has shown that Tory authorities will be hit hardest by the increase in housing targets. We all know how things work currently. Dealshire, a Tory authority, is adjacent to Starmerville, a Labour controlled city constrained by its administrative boundaries, relative lack of brownfield and green belt. Starmerville wanted Dealshire to take some of its unmet need. Dealshire, wise to the views of its voters, refused to cooperate. Dealshire knew that its Local Plan wouldn’t pass examination on this basis but really didn’t care. When faced with planning applications for unallocated sites, it would simply roll out a narrative about not losing its fields for the people of Starmerville, and refuse such applications.

It would prefer to see appeals upheld and costs awarded than pass such applications. It knows it's politically disastrous to be seen to be complicit in building on fields.

 

Under the proposed new standard method, Dealshire’s housing numbers will rise by 40%. Only under the white paper, this figure won’t be up for debate, it will be set by central government, which has already considered factors such as brownfield availability and green belt. The key decision about which land to develop will now be squarely focused on Local Plan stage and it will be responsible for allocating the sites.

Of course what we don’t know yet is what will happen if Dealshire won’t play ball – the consultation document states, ominously, ‘we will consider what sanctions there would be for those who fail to do so (produce a LP within timescale).’ Easier to imagine Theresa May saying it than Boris Johnson.  

Get Local government reorganisation out of the way first?
The UK’s arrangements for local government are extremely complicated – 26 County councils, 36 metropolitan districts, 192 non-metropolitan districts, 56 unitary councils, 9 metro mayors and 15 elected mayors. Some jurisdictions overlap, others don’t. It’s a real mess! 

The government thinks unitarisation is the answer to this (after all, £3bn cost savings are being dangled) and there are currently a number of active proposals for consolidation of smaller councils into larger ones, along with counter-proposals. After all, reorganisation isn’t just about redrawing boundaries to gather residents together into a functional area with a reasonably cohesive area with a shared identity. No, on the ground, political expediency matters, and boundaries being redrawn can easily shift the natural political composition of a council from one colour to another. Councillors can lose their role, their voice and their income. Reorganisation can be both a threat or an opportunity, depending on your perspective and the details of the proposal.
 
The reorganisation process would appear to conflict with setting up prescriptive timetables for local-plan making. Starmerville and Dealshire could start drawing up their Local Plans only to find themselves forcibly merged half way through the process, presumably resulting in the Local Plan process having to start from scratch.

 

But the reality is that whilst local government reorganisation definitely has momentum at present, it’s been an ever-present for decades – Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Northamptonshire have been unitarised in the last few years, whilst Cornwall, Bedfordshire and Wiltshire underwent the same treatment under Gordon Brown’s Labour. Remember Avon, Cleveland and Humberside? Maybe you don’t, they were abolished in the 1990s. How about the GLC? Bournemouth was part of Hampshire until the 1970s. Our government is fundamentally so centralised that the local government we do have is constantly subject to change and upheaval. What this means is the argument that changes to Local Planning should wait until after the current proposals is meaningless – local government reorganisation is just an ongoing part of our political system.
 
The interaction between the Local Plan timetable and local elections will be fascinating

 

So as we know, with one punch the government hits councils with fixed (and generally higher) housing targets, with the other hand they now hammer home their own timelines too.

The schedule of elections will make a prescriptive Local Plan timetable a juicy affair. 104 councils (nearly a third) elect ‘in thirds’, including Watford, of which I was formerly a member. This means that when combined with the County Council, there are elections every year. We know that in the past councils have delayed their local plan for political reasons. The prescriptive timetable above means that they are going to struggle to find space in the timeline for a politically convenient delay.
 
Let’s see how this works in practice. The white paper states the government wants all councils to have their new Local Plans in place by December 2024 (the next General election). So they seem to mean business. A government in a rush could probably rush the legislation through Parliament by January 2021. There might be a few issues with Brexit legislation hogging the agendas, but with an 80 seat majority they should be ok.

 

Let’s plan for the future, assuming this legislation takes effect in Spring 2021…..we’ll see councils launch stage 1 consultations just as councillors are beginning to spend all their Saturdays campaigning, after the year long covid ban on door-knocking. In some areas this will mean the 2021 elections could be dominated by discussion about site allocations (remember that under the new high-stakes system, a site allocation effectively becomes a consent upon adoption). But by May 2022, officers will be working (probably silently) on producing a draft plan, meaning that bin-collections will return as the big issue. Extrapolating the timetable further means that authorities should begin Stage 3 in Autumn 2022. This is going to be the really juicy stage. But then again, based on the 6 week window for consultation, it should all be over by Christmas 2022, leaving the 2023 elections to be once again free from political rows on planning, as the inspector reviews the plan. However, the inspector will publish the final plan in Spring 2024, just in advance of the last local elections before the next General Election.

 

Local elections next year and 2024 could be dominated by the politics of Local Plan making.  
 
The government takes a huge gamble with these changes.
The 12 week consultation is now about half way through (closes 29 October). The Government will be receiving representations from a huge number of stakeholders. The only group they really fear is their own side, who will keep their sharpest barbs out of an official consultation. We have previously written that traditional Tory strongholds like Guildford and South Oxfordshire have recently ditched the Tories, in large part due to the politics of development.


Tory councillors will be livid that these changes see the government wield its strong arm. Under the current system, the reasons our plan-making system is dysfunctional can be debated at length, with blame placed in many different places. Councils often blamed neighbouring authorities, or the government, or developers. But in many cases, councils who previously failed to make Local Plans did so deliberately, akin to naughty children who wandered off into the woods and were late home for tea. What the government is trying to do is to install more rigidity into the framework, changes for which it will be held ultimately responsible. The government is now saying it will take responsibility for making Councils play ball. The children are in the play-pen and will be watched to check they don’t escape.

When being forced into railroading through LPs containing politically unpopular ‘growth’ sites, Councillors, even Tories, will turn their fire on the government.
 
These changes might actually simplify plan-making and thereby support house-building, but they are politically risky for the government and could well be watered down. The prescriptive 30 month timetable is one of the best bets for abolition or amendment. If this prescriptive timetable comes off as currently designed, we’ll see a direct collision between contentious consultation on the LP and elections next year.

The Newington team will be sharing 12 articles on different aspects of the Planning White Paper, during the consultation period. You can catch up with previous weeks here:

Week 1 - Phil Briscoe reviews the Planning White Paper
Week 2 - Paddy Kent considers the changes to Local Plans
Week 3 - Beth Park examines housing targets 
Week 4 - Aimee Howard looks ahead to the new Infrastructure Levy
Week 5 - Oliver Sargent asks if affordable housing is set for a fresh approach or more of the same