Long-anticipated plan-making reforms were launched by Government in the early hours of 25 July, for public consultation (running for 12 weeks until the 18th October). The consultation sets out its ‘direction of travel’ and how the Government proposes to re-shape the system in light of the legislative changes in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB). It also comes hot on the heels of a somewhat negative report from the LUCH Select Committee which criticised various aspects of the planning reform proposals.
The central vision for reformed plan-making is for simpler plans, prepared quickly, updated frequently and reflective of local needs. The Government envisages a phased roll out, with the new local plans system commencing in November 2024 and sticking to the timescale it announced in December 2022, even though the parliamentary timetable is running some months behind schedule.
Much of the announcement relates to recent consultations on the Environmental Outcome Reports; Infrastructure Levy; LURB reforms to national planning policy (Dec 22) and the May 2022 Policy Statement on LURB.
What is being Consulted on?
The consultation covers the following proposals:
Making the role and content of plans clearer:
A clearer set of expectations for what a local plan must contain.
National development management policies will be re-consulted on but remain key to focussing local plan content to local issues only.
Speeding up the process for preparing a plan:
A timeframe of 30 months (two and half years) to prepare and put in place (adopt) a plan.
Three new Gateway assessments to provide live assessments and support and reduce time spent at examination.
A requirement for planning authorities to start updating their plans every five years.
Ensuring local communities are engaged:
Additional to the existing two periods of public consultation, a new requirement for planning authorities to “notify” and “invite” early participation on matters that might shape the direction of the plan, to ensure that communities and other key stakeholders are able to participate much earlier in the process.
Dealing with complexity:
The proposals aim in sum to add clarity about what is expected at every stage of the plan making process and to reduce repetition through the development management policies.
Making the most of digital technology:
In keeping with the ongoing commitment to digital transformation, digital technology is highlighted as a way to speed up the production of plans and consultation and make the process simpler and more accessible.
Are changes needed?
In short, yes, these proposals arrive with plan making at a particularly low ebb.
The hiatus that began in 2020 with the publication of the Planning for the Future White Paper continues; the rate at which local plans were submitted or adopted last year fell to its lowest level since the NPPF was introduced (see charts below). Scores of Local Plans have been put on hold, particularly following the December 2022 Ministerial Statement.
Coverage of ‘up-to-date’ Local Plans is low and declining. Recent Lichfields analysis (on behalf of the LPDF) shows that, in July 2023, just a third (33%) of Local Plans were ‘up to date’ and less than five years old. The consultation itself acknowledges “few [local authorities] are at an advanced stage of preparing a new one”. Under prevailing trends, we estimate it will fall to just 22% by the end of 2025 under the current situation.
A plan-led approach to house building relies on sites being allocated in local plans. Currently, the aggregate annual housing requirement figure (so-called targets) across all adopted local plans in England is circa 224,000, well short of the Government’s 300,000 ambition, but remarkably similar to the number of homes built each year. Instead of rising to meet this figure, recent trends have started to show a fall in the number of planning permissions granted for residential development.
The Government has set a 30-month timeframe for preparing and adopting a local plan or minerals and waste plan . In practice, taking into account six months for examination and one month to adopt – this becomes 23-months. A new local plan timetable (to replace Local Development Schemes) formalises the path to an adopted local plan. Helpfully for local authorities, a scoping period before the “clock starts” could provide some wriggle room to what is a challenging timeline.
The consultation includes proposals for a set of revised tests of soundness; gateway assessments during plan-making; examinations; community engagement and monitoring. There is also a recognition of the growing importance of supplementary plans, setting out their appropriateness (e.g. bringing in a design code), rather than sometimes being used to adapt local plans.
Community land auctions are also discussed with the process for pilot authorities set out, including the potential financial benefits to the Council from these auctions - we will be revisiting this area in further research.
Revisions to the test for soundness are intended to reduce the amount of evidence required to develop a plan and defend it at examination, but still ensure high quality plans are delivered. This would be done through (a) increasing the standardisation of key evidence and data, (b) freezing data or evidence at particular points of plan making, (c) streamlining new style plans to focus on local issues, and (d) support on building the evidence base through new formalised gateway assessments.
Three formal Gateway Assessments at the beginning, middle and end of the process for preparing a plan, are proposed to support plan preparation and help identify issues in local plan evidence bases before examination. Additionally, a timetable of plan development will be introduced to be updated every six months and publicly available. There is also a ‘light touch annual return’ monitoring process, as a minimal version of an annual monitoring report.
A six-month target for examinations of local plans is set out; however, acknowledging that this could impede on thoroughness in the most complex of examinations, this is advisory and not set out in regulations.
The changes proposed also aim to increase community engagement opportunities without slowing down plan making through using more digital opportunities, greater monitoring (through the gateway assessments and timelines) and a more standardised approach to consultations (defining the role more closely for the two mandatory consultation windows).
A key theme of the changes envisaged to help quicken plan-making is reform through digitalisation (a task with which Lichfields is providing assistance to DLUHC), but this runs alongside a more fundamental overhaul of key elements and processes involved in plan making.
Will these changes make the difference needed?
In sum, the Government seeks a more streamlined, standardised approach to plan making with clear timelines and reporting against milestones and outcomes to keep things on track. Supporting this objective is the aim of reducing the scope of local plans, as discussed, including by introducing national development management policies, as previously announced.
While the stages that a planning authority has to go through will be set out in regulations (Reg 18 and 19 to be replaced with new stages), the requirement to achieve it in 30 months will only be in policy and guidance, not the regulations.
Lichfields’ assessment of local plan completion timelines found that some local authorities have managed to complete local plans from ‘Issues and Options’ to formal Reg 22 submission within the 30 month time period set out, notably Broxbourne, Maidstone, Crawley and Northumberland. However, given most local authorities have taken far, far longer (the consultation acknowledges seven years on average), the new 30-month timeline will be a significant challenge, particularly in locations where decisions on how to meet development needs results in difficult political decisions.
Our forecast of local plan coverage by 2025 shows areas with the highest coverage of constrained land (protected by policies listed Footnote 7 of the Framework) will be more likely to have a local plan that is ten or more years old (see Chart below).
Slow plan making and attempts to speed it up are not new. The Planning Advisory Group (PAG) was set up in 1964 and made recommendations to simplify the process of producing plans and increase the speed at which they were prepared. In 2003, Lichfields carried out a review for Government on the implementation of PPG3 and found that only 13% of local plans and 35% of structure plans had been adopted to implement the then new ‘brownfield-first’ planning policy. In 2015, the Local Plans Expert Group was set a similar task to PAG. In November 2017, Government launched a process of intervention in 15 local authorities and the then Secretary of State said that “my patience has run out”. 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. Powers of intervention were complemented by the housing delivery test – ostensibly focused on incentivising home building, but whose “stick” of a tilted balance towards sustainable development was designed to encourage local authorities to make local plans and thus shape where development happens (arguably the policy has proved relatively toothless).
This sorry tale does not mean that we should not try to speed up plan making. If we are to have a plan-led system, the ambition of full local plan coverage across the country and for authorities to produce them more quickly is obviously right. The vision set out in the proposed changes – for a simpler, positively shaped, up to date plan led system - is one to be applauded. The proposals set out including national development management policies, setting out gateway assessments to identify blockages early, digitalisation and the aim to simplify some of the shared challenges across authorities holds significant promise, if executed correctly.
In this regard, ongoing questions remain. A much tighter timeline for plan making has been suggested but is not regulated for; it remains to be seen whether more authorities meet these timeframes. Bluntly, for authorities facing the most politically difficult decisions, the proposals do not, in of themselves, make these decisions any easier or examination automatically much quicker.
The focus on improving the mechanics of local plan making while important, does not directly address the reality of preparing a local plan that both meets local housing needs and is met with local support in areas where historically there has been conflict between these two objectives.
Perhaps most glaringly absent are proposals around the ‘flexible alignment test’ that is expected to replace the duty to cooperate and address the challenge of what happens when authorities have higher local housing need than they are able to meet within their boundaries and thus need to work with their neighbours. This policy will be key in setting a strategic planning approach. This will be crucial to planning for and subsequently building enough homes, especially in urban areas, notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s long term plan for housing centred on a brownfield-led agenda.
Interestingly, the ‘top down’ approach that the Government is anticipating for Cambridge (not without some local backlash) and in London, is seemingly poised to be delivered through development corporations, and might signal that Government is looking to deal with the challenge in different ways, outside of the plan-led system. Perhaps this is an acknowledgement that, while the proposed reforms might improve the process of plan making, meeting the challenge of providing sufficient the right homes in the right places requires an escalated solution.
 The LUHC Select Committee Report, available here As explained in the December 2022 Consultation Paper here LURB reforms to national planning policy, available here LURB Policy Statement, available here The White Paper can be found here See blog analysis here Whether a Local Plan policy is ‘up-to-date’ is a matter of fact and judgement as per the 2014 Bloor Homes High Court judgment ( EWHC 754 (Admin)) which defined the question at para 45. However, for the purposes of the analysis, the five-year period is a relevant metric because of the statutory requirement to review a plan every five years and the provisions of NPPF para 74 which state that the relevant housing requirement figure for five-year housing land supply purposes switches from the Local Plan housing requirement to the Standard Method Local Housing Need figure once the strategic policies are more than five years old (unless reviewed and found not to need updating). For the purposes of the analysis, Local Plans are defined as Development Plan Documents with strategic policies. Source: Lichfields’ Local Plan monitoring Which has seen average annual net additions for the past three years at 229,000. Habitats sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest; land designated as Green Belt, Local Green Space, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a National Park (or within the Broads Authority) or defined as Heritage Coast; irreplaceable habitats; designated heritage assets and areas at risk of flooding or coastal change As reported in this blog reviewing what happened with PPG3 The LPEG Report is available here See ministerial statement here His speech is here Lichfields analysis found that not only was the housing delivery test toothless in delivering more housing in all but one authority, the recent amendments have watered down the ‘stick’ of the tilted even further.