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Planning matters

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Today’s Queen Speech saw the Government set out its legislative agenda for the upcoming parliamentary year – the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill took centre stage. The purpose of the proposed Bill is to “drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas, and ensuring everyone can share in the United Kingdom’s success”. In this ‘on the day’ analysis we briefly consider how it might meet its aims in two policy areas: (i) levelling up and (ii) planning reform. Levelling Up The Government have made levelling up a central platform of this parliament, while some observers have been quick to write off the agenda, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State have set themselves the ambitious timeline of 2030 to see results. Our analysis showed the geography of both the socio economic challenges that need to be addressed and the opportunities for investments to make a difference. Today’s announcement legislated for more of these areas to benefit from devolution and establish the institutions to make better decisions in two ways: Firstly, ‘empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas’, adding the legislative backing to the funding and policy proposals previously announced. The next steps for many local areas will be to get their ‘devolution deals’ (either county or combined authorities) over the line and established so they can deliver on the desired outcomes. Secondly, placing a duty on the Government to set Levelling Up missions and produce an annual report updating the country on delivery of these missions. The next steps here will be to set and monitor targets that ensure that ‘levelling up’ is rooted in the priorities of all Whitehall departments. In truth, the funding for ‘levelling up’ has been known for some time now, with bids for the second round of funding being prepared now. The aims and policy detail (including 12 national missions) has also been set out in the Levelling Up White Paper . Today’s Queen’s Speech legislated for the government to take the Bill through the house, and allowed for further devolution through the already trailed “county deals”. Planning reform The second part of this bill addresses the aim to “improve the planning system”. The Bill appears to support planning reform in a much changed form to that suggested in either the 2017 or 2020 Housing and Planning White Papers. Notably, one element that does survive these previous iterations appears to be the change to the infrastructure levy. Lichfields will comment more on this when further detail is available - however realising betterment values and land value capture has been an aim for Governments across most of the 60 years Lichfields has operated; therefore the challenge is getting the details right. The Secretary of State’s comments in the lead up to the Queen’s Speech, that “abstract housing targets should not be the sole measure of success[1]”  could be seen as a change in emphasis away from the long-standing aim of delivering “300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020’s” towards “making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing.” However, there is an acknowledgement that “the current system cannot meet the national demand for housing”. The Bill at this stage does not go into detail, however, there is a stated aim for “Simplifying and standardising the process for local plans”. The focus here must be on improving both the quality and the coverage of development plans. Recent Lichfields research found that only 42% of LPAs had a fully up-to-date local plan[2] with 11 authorities stalling, delaying or withdrawing local plans in recent months. Our previous analysis of the reasons for this point mainly to uncertainty over housing need requirements, political challenges of meeting targets in constrained areas and the apparent change in ‘mood music’ from central Government away from a pressure to deliver housing numbers[3] and towards developments with local support. To meet its aims to improve plan making, and to deliver homes and infrastructure within the remaining parliamentary period, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will need to be supported by non-legislative measures that address three issues that loom over plan making as it stands: Uncertainty. Proposed tweaks to the NPPF and a possible lower housing need target (in the South of England) that appear to be trailed need to be clarified to provide local authorities with the certainty of what their local plans will be assessed against. As it stands, the Government’s December 2023 deadline appears to be the lesser risk facing many local authorities compared with the political benefits of delivering a potentially lower number of homes under a mooted new standard method. Nitrate Neutrality. Additionally, 74 local planning authorities are affected by the so called “nitrate neutrality” effects, requiring authorities to stall housing development until they can guarantee schemes are ‘nutrient neutral’. These areas are in need of a comprehensive package of solutions to the nitrate neutrality problem in each catchment area – an estimated 100,000 homes are estimated to currently be held up in these areas[4]. Resourcing. Public sector planning is understaffed and under resourced, tasked with dealing with an increasingly wide range complex specialities, and balancing priorities from achieving ‘carbon net zero’ to health and active travel priorities, as well as viability and affordable housing contributions - the total expenditure on planning policy has fallen by 22% in England between 2010 and 2020[5]. This under resourcing delays decisions, leads to poorer plan making and poorer outcomes for communities. In conclusion, for the Government to succeed in its aims of delivering the aims of the levelling up and planning reform bill, many of the most important actions do not require legislative changes. Potentially the ‘biggest wins’ against these aims are in unlocking developments that are held back by uncertainty, by nitrate neutrality issues or by under resourced local authorities. However, the Bill will be successful if it can deliver on its aims to enable local areas to plan more effectively together and not add to complexity or uncertainty unnecessarily. In this sense, supporting combined authorities and county deals to address strategic plan making effectively, including making the joined-up decisions that the bill sets out could lead to improved outcomes both to levelling up and planning reform.    [1] Levelling up bill will include 'street votes' on local design codes, says Gove [2] Ten years of the NPPF: What do we have to show for a decade of plan making?As of the 27th March 2022. We interpret ‘up-to-date’ in this context as Local Plans that were adopted or reviewed within the past five years in the context that local plans have to be reviewed, and if necessary, updated every five years to remain up to date. 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] Counting the cost of delay: The economic impact of Local Plan delay to housing delivery [4] 100,000 homes on hold due to 'nitrate neutrality' advice, housebuilders claim [5] Provide funding certainty for planning departments, RTPI tells government    

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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 (£)  

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