This briefing note considers the introduction into the NPPF of a requirement for local planning authorities to prepare a statement of common ground in order to meet three primary objectives.
These are (a) increasing certainty and transparency, earlier on in the plan making process, on where effective co-operation is and is not happening; (b) encouraging all local planning authorities to co-operate effectively and seek agreement on strategic cross-boundary issues; and (c) helping local planning authorities demonstrate evidence of co-operation by setting clearer and more consistent expectations as to how co-operation in plan making should be approached and documented.
Paragraph 179 of the previous version of the NPPF required local planning authorities to work collaboratively to ensure that strategic priorities across local boundaries were properly coordinated, and to address development requirements which could not be wholly met within a single local planning authority's administrative boundary.
Furthermore, the duty to co-operate, introduced through the Localism Act 2011, is designed to reflect the reality that strategic cross-boundary planning matters can only be effectively tackled when local planning authorities work together. Compliance with the duty is tested at the examination stage of the plan-making process. While there are a number of instances of local planning authorities co-operating effectively to plan for the strategic needs of their wider area, including its housing requirement, there are also examples of where the existing framework for co-operation, based upon the duty to co-operate, has proved to be less effective, with a number of local plans being withdrawn at the examination stage where compliance with the duty to co-operate has not been demonstrated.
Against this background, the government's Housing White Paper 'Fixing our Broken Housing Market' (published for consultation in February 2017) (the HWP), particularly paragraphs 1.9 and A.13, set out a plan for more effective joint working where planning issues go beyond individual authority boundaries through the preparation of a statement of common ground.
The revised NPPF implements the HWP's plan and also reflects (in Chapter 3: Plan-making) a number of the proposals foreshadowed in the government's 'Planning for the right homes in the right places: consultation proposals' (published in September 2017). In particular, paragraph 27 of the revised NPPF states that, in order to demonstrate effective and on-going joint working, strategic policy-making authorities should prepare and maintain one or more statements of common ground, documenting the cross-boundary matters being addressed and progress in cooperating to address these. Paragraph 35 goes on to set out the soundness tests against which local plans are assessed at the examination stage, and proposes a strengthening of the positively prepared and effective soundness tests so that local plans are (a) informed by agreements with other authorities, so that unmet need from neighbouring areas is accommodated; and (b) based on effective joint working on cross-boundary strategic matters that have been dealt with rather than deferred, as evidenced by a statement of common ground.
Co-operation between local planning authorities will continue to be tested by virtue of the statutory duty to co-operate when a local plan is submitted for examination. However, the statement of common ground should provide the primary evidence of compliance with the duty to co-operate and establish a clear link between that and the assessment of whether a local plan can be considered sound.
As regards to guidance on the preparation of statements of common ground, the revised NPPF directs the reader to "the approach set out in national planning guidance" (paragraph 27). We are not aware of the Planning Practice Guidance having been updated at this stage. However, it is anticipated that the approach to be advocated will be based upon the government's September 2017 consultation proposals 'Planning for the right homes in the right places'. Matters which we expect to be included are (among others) the identification of key cross-boundary strategic planning issues, including housing and infrastructure matters, as well as the geographical area over which to produce the statement of common ground, plus the need to keep statement of common ground regularly updated during the plan-making process to reflect emerging agreements between participating authorities and an individual authority's plan-making progress.
Despite having consulted previously upon transitional arrangements for the amended positively prepared and effective soundness tests, and for the introduction of statements of common ground more generally, the government has previously confirmed that it will not be taking these transitional arrangements forward. The reason given was that the introduction of the statement of common ground as a way of evidencing joint working and the duty to cooperate is not a significant change in practice. Therefore, the change does not demand nor necessitate a transitional period.
While the objectives behind the introduction of a requirement for statements of common ground are commendable and have merit, the extent to which these statements will assist in the examination process will depend upon their effectiveness as both a road-map and an up to date record for cross-boundary co-operation on strategic planning matters. For the resource-strapped local planning authority with limited finances, the requirement for a statement of common ground, particularly in the absence of transitional arrangements, may amount to little more than an unwelcome distraction and an additional burden to be shouldered.