With less than half of England’s Councils having a fit for purpose Local Plan the government is right to consider how the situation can be improved.
In England we have a “plan-based” approach to consenting development, and in the absence of regularly reviews plans the system simply does not work as it should, and much needed new homes and development to fuel economic growth does not get delivered. Not since the end of WW2 has there been a more pressing time to sort this out.
The White Paper proposes putting the plan making system on a diet – making it leaner and fitter to address the problems faced in modern day England, as exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. They propose to achieve this by standardising the form of content of plans, as well as imposing strict time-limits for the review and preparation of plans.
Some of the key proposals include:
- A legal requirement for LPAs to review their local plans every 5 years, and if a review is required to get an adopted up-dated plan in place within 30 months. The government will intervene and take over the control of plan production if LPAs fail to meet the statutory requirement for timely reviews and plan preparation.
- The requirement that all LPAs must have new style adopted Local Plans in place within 30 months of the relevant legislation coming into force. This date is extended to 42 months where the LPA has a Local Plan that is less than 3 years old, of a draft plan that has been submitted for Examination.
- For plans to be based on standardised set of data, which will be presented in a concise and user friendly format to enable better public participation.
- Simplify the content of plans so they focus on identifying areas for development and protection. The White Paper suggests that three simple designations are used in all Local Plans with all sites being defined as either being Growth areas (suitable for substantial development), Renewal areas (suitable for development) and Protected areas (where no or only limited development would be allowed).
- To shorten plans, each Local Plan would only include site or area specific policy wording, with the bulk of all planning policies being the same across the country and enshrined in the NPPF.
- The test of “soundness” is to be dropped and replaced by answering the question – “Will the Local Plan contribute to achieving sustainable development in accordance with the NPPF”.
All this will be supported by a significant increase in the use of technology, to both speed up the process but to create a much more transparent and accessible process that members of he public can engage with.
There is much to digest in the White Paper in relation to plan making, some new but much of which is a re-hash of concepts long discussed. We would all welcome speed, brevity and clarity in local plan preparation, and their evidence base, but the devil is often in the detail and the need for robust environmental, transport and viability assessment cannot be avoided. Rushed and poor quality assessments will lead to weak and ill-conceived plans. The proper balance needs to be struck.
Writing brief, easy to read technical documents that solely focus on the key material points is not easy, it requires additional time and thought, not less. Like many of the proposed changes to the system, the utopia described in the White Paper will only be achieved through a considerable increase of funds into the system, and LPAs being able to access the professional support they need to navigate any new system successfully.
At the heart of the White Paper is the government’s desire to give local people a greater say in where development goes, with a particular focus on getting residents more interested from the outset. The paper refers to “radically and profoundly re-invented engagement with local communities”, but what is meant by this phrase is unclear, and does not answer the perennial problem that those most motivated to participate in any consultation exercise relating to development proposals are always far more likely to be in the ‘no’ not ‘yes’ camp.