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Planning matters

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Ten years of the NPPF: What do we have to show for a decade of plan making?
Just over a month ago we had the ten-year anniversary of the 2012 NPPF which was launched on 27th March 2012. In a decade of plan making, just over three quarters (76%) of LPAs outside of London adopted a local plan at all. For some, in the very early days of adoption in 2012, they were legacy plans submitted ahead of the NPPF, so are not in fact fully-NPPF compliant (e.g. Hertsmere[1]). As of the 27th March 2022, and in the context that local plans have to be reviewed, and if necessary, updated every five years to remain up to date, only 42% of LPAs had a fully up-to-date local plan[2]. Source: Planning Inspectorate data on Strategic Plan Progress. Please note we have updated some entries in this dataset including for LPAs who have undertaken an internal review of their local plan and concluded it did not need updating, however we have not checked every LPA individually.  Of the 70 LPAs who have not adopted a new local plan in the past ten years, 74% contain Green Belt. Many of these areas no doubt have limited political appetite to deliver a local plan which would deal with this particular political hot potato.   Why? That fewer than half of LPAs have an up-to-date local plan having had a decade to prepare and maintain one is not a ringing endorsement for the performance of the planning system, but is not particularly surprising.  Government’s stated commitment to Local Plan making has continued over the decade. Most recently, the Chief Planner wrote to the head of LPA’s in November 2021[3] and strongly encouraged them to continue in the preparation and adoption of local plans. The government also put Local Plans at the heart of its planning strategy to deliver more homes in the ‘Planning for the Future’ document[4] published in March 2020 (just before lockdown) by setting a deadline of December 2023 for full up-to-date local plan coverage, after which the government has stated it will prepare to intervene. This deadline was reiterated the Housing Minister’s written statement to the House of Commons on the 19th January 2021[5]: “It is critical that work should continue to advance Local Plans through to adoption by the end of 2023 to help ensure that the economy can rebound strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic. Completing Local Plans will help to ensure that we can build back better and continue to deliver the homes that are needed across England.” The Ministerial Statement concluded with the following message to LPAs who did not make sufficient progress: “I will consider contacting those authorities where delays to plan-making have occurred to discuss the reasons why this has happened and actions to be undertaken.” The Government has dialled down the rhetoric from that in November 2017 when it launched a process of intervention in 15 local authorities[6] and the then Secretary of State said that “my patience has run out”[7]. That intervention – which did not result in any LPAs having their plans taken over by Government – followed a previous deadline set by Brandon Lewis in 2015[8] that said: “In cases where no Local Plan has been produced by early 2017 – five years after the publication of the NPPF – we will intervene to arrange for the Plan to be written, in consultation with local people, to accelerate production of a Local Plan.” Of the 15 local authorities that were subject to the intervention process in 2017, six have still not adopted a local plan[9]. So what are the prospects for meeting the latest December 2023 deadline? We have looked at the 70 LPAs that have not adopted a plan since 27th March 2012, and reviewed their published Local Development Schemes (LDS)[10]. This suggests only some progress is being made:  15 LPAs currently have a local plan at examination;   17 LPAs have missed their own deadline for submission to the SOS in their latest published LDS. Three anticipated a March 2022 submission so might still be submitted shortly with only a short delay. Will they still submit in time to be adopted by December 2023 or does the delay suggest bigger problems?;   13 LPAs are still aiming to submit their local plan to the SOS for examination between April 2022 and December 2022, assuming a minimum 12 months examination in public this allows a realistic prospect for adoption by the December 2023 deadline;   24 LPAs are not planning to submit a local plan to the SOS until 2023 or later, this is unlikely to allow sufficient time for adoption by December 2023; and   1 LPA has no published LDS. Whilst there is no indication that the December 2023 deadline has gone away, the recent flurry of stalled, withdrawn or shelved local plans means at least some LPAs have taken the calculated risk not to comply (see Counting the cost of delay blog). Of the 70 authorities identified above, St Albans, Ashfield and Sheffield all have an LDS indicating submission of a local plan for examination within the next twelve months, but in light of recent events this now looks unlikely. Further, Castle Point despite having concluded its EIP with a sound local plan, has refused to adopt it. The 70 local authorities have a combined annual housing need equivalent to 56,661 homes, equivalent to 849,915 homes over a minimum 15-year plan period. On the one hand, one can understand the motivation for ignoring the deadline. The government has threatened to intervene before, but it never came to fruition even when the political wind was behind housing delivery. In 2017, intervention did not actually mean government stepping in to produce plans, but arguably chivvy-ed some councils along to show progress. However, planning is in a very different place in the aftermath of Chesham and Amersham; was the March 2021 Ministerial Statement another empty threat? Although a lot of these recent delays are associated with housing needs and the uncertainty of a new standard method figure which is expected to reduce figures in the south east of England through a ‘levelling up’ redistribution exercise, this comes on top of a succession of reasons (real and perceived) to delay including: The uncertainty arising from the prospect of reforms in the 2017 Housing White Paper,   The consultation on (and then requirements of) the new NPPF 2019,   The introduction of the standard method,   Changes (mutant and otherwise) to the standard method,   Waiting for the White Paper changes to local plan making (no longer expected),   Amendments to the NPPF (including para 22 on a long-term vision), and   Nitrates and water neutrality issues. If stability in the environment for plan making (and for all parties to know the rules of the game) is the recipe for progress, the government is its own worst enemy. There are other practical reasons which have slowed down plan making too, including the chronic shortage of staff in public sector planning, the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic, failures of the duty to cooperate, and good old politics, with the longest running local plan processes often having to make difficult political decisions, usually involving Green Belt.   What next? So, what happens next? December 2023 is now not that far away, if the government was serious about intervening to ensure progress. But with 59% of the country currently without an up to date local plan adopted or reviewed in the past five years, where would they start? Focussing on those with the longest period without a local plan would in most cases bring them into conflict with Councils controlled by Conservatives and perhaps with similar political context as Chesham and Amersham. Further, the logic for ensuring local plans were in place by December 2023 was to help ensure that the economy can rebound strongly from the COVID19 pandemic, but is this perceived as important to the government as it was in January 2021 when we were in another lockdown? In reality, we wait. We wait for the confirmation of what, if anything, survives from the Planning White Paper, and what changes to the distribution of housing needs comes from changes to the standard method. We have waited a decade (or since 1956 in the case of York[11]), what’s a few more months?    [1] Submitted in February 2012 and prepared largely pursuant to the East of England Plan (2008), the adopted Regional Strategy, which remained extant at the time of the EIP, even though the Secretary of State and indicated the Government’s intention to revoke the Regional Strategies. [2] We interpret ‘up-to-date’ in this context as Local Plans that were adopted or reviewed within the past five years. This includes Castle Point and Eastleigh who although they did not have an adopted local plan at this date, did have a local plan which had been found sound. This also includes authorities who undertook a Local Plan Review and found the plan did not require updating including Reigate and Banstead and Woking. [3] Available here  [4] Available here [5] Available here [6] See the Ministerial Statement here [7] His speech is here [8] In a Written Ministerial Statement, available here [9] This includes Castle Point who had a Local Plan found sound but voted against adopting it. It also includes Basildon who withdrew their Local Plan from examination. [10] A LDS is a project plan which sets out the timetable for the production of new or revised development plan documents that will be part of the Local Plan for the area. [11] See this piece by the Economist (£)  


Brownfield First – common sense or a political minefield?
The Green Belt is one of the most politically emotive topics in town planning. People’s understanding of the Green Belt helps fuel this political heavyweight today, but to what extent does this understanding reflect reality? The Green Belt’s original three principles include health, convenience and beauty.  On health, Ebenezer Howard envisaged towns surrounded by countryside to separate housing from industry in the context of polluted Victorian cities. Raymond Unwin proposed convenient access to countryside for city dwellers through the provision of recreational space at the edge of the urban area and as part of the 1945 Greater London Plan, Abercrombie included a Green Belt ring around London to conserve beauty by stopping encroachment of the capital into the countryside.  If the Green Belt lived up to these three principles then there is a strong case for its retention. But to what extent does the Metropolitan Green Belt fulfil these principles? Howard’s idea to separate housing and industry for health benefits was obviously positive at the time, but over a century later, the Green Belt’s impact on health needs a more contemporary view. London reached its population peak at 8.6 million people in February 2015 with no signs of stopping. In this context, London is seemingly aiming to do everything it can to deliver more than double the past rates of housing delivery over the next decade within its finite boundaries defined by the Green Belt, but even if successful on its own terms, this still leaves a shortfall of at least 7,000 homes every year. Implications of London’s housing shortfall are already evident, between 2001 and 2011 overcrowding in London increased by 25% and concealed households soaring by 70%.  The health implications of more and more people cramming themselves into overcrowded accommodation in London are well documented. The use of Green Belt land for the pursuit of leisure conjures much public support, but the Green Belt is not geared towards public access. Non-accessible agricultural land covers 59% of the Metropolitan Green Belt and a further 7.1% is occupied by (mainly private) golf courses. Only 13% of the entirety of the Metropolitan Green Belt is publically accessible. Furthermore, today there are competing demands for how people spend their leisure time and these may not include access to the great outdoors, instead maybe opting for the gym. Equally, today increased public transportation and car ownership mean that access to open countryside nearby is no longer the imperative it once was. Few would dispute that the protection of scenic English countryside from visual erosion of development is a good thing. But the planning system offers this protection through designations including Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest[1].  In fact, just 31.3% of non-urban land in the Metropolitan Green Belt is covered by NPPF footnote 9 constraints[2] (in the Metropolitan Green Belt 24% is AONB, 5% SSSI and less than 1% Local Nature Reserves), compared to 34.3% outside of the Green Belt.  It is also true that there are numerous brownfield sites within land designated as Green Belt. In summary, although the original purposes of Green Belt might seem valid today, the reality is the Green Belt is likely to be peripheral to the achievement of these ideals. There are clear health implications of overcrowding cities where development opportunities are constrained. Green Belt designation does not guarantee public access and nor is this space necessarily a demand of peoples leisure time. Finally, swathes of the Green Belt are in fact brownfield sites or are not deemed worthy of other planning designations defining beauty or interest. Has the time has come for the belt to be loosened on this utopian misconception? [1] Along with other NPPF footnote 9 constraints. [2] Sites protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives , Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Green Belt, Local Green Space, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Heritage Coast or National Park (or the Broads Authority), designated heritage assets; and locations at risk of flooding or coastal erosion.