Marking Your Own Homework

Marking Your Own Homework

Interpretation and Application of the Requirement to Review Local Plan Policies Every Five Years

The absence of up-to-date plans is the antithesis of how a plan-led system should operate and yet a large proportion of local authorities have plans that are now out-of-date. The NPPF requirement to review plans every five years is intended to address this, but how effective is it in action? We take a look at how five-year reviews have been played out in different local authorities across England.

Local Plans - The Current State of Play

Last year, Lichfields research found that 67% of local plans were more than five years old, and therefore out of date. It warned that this would rise to 75% by the end of 2025 without “immediate action from the Government”.
Paragraph 11 of the NPPF states that proposals that accord with an up-to-date development plan should be approved without delay. However, where the policies that are most important in determining an application are out-of-date, the presumption in favour of sustainable development should be applied and planning permission should be approved unless the development conflicts with NPPF policies relating to the protection of areas or assets of particular importance, or where the adverse impacts arising from the development “would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole” (paragraph 11 d(ii)). As a result, the weight that can be applied to the policies and strategic priorities contained in an out-of-date local plan is likely to be reduced.
To avoid such a situation, revisions to The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 (as amended) in April 2018 introduced a requirement for local authorities to review their local plan policies “at least once every five years”. This Insight Focus explores how this requirement is interpreted and applied by local authorities across England.
We have examined all local authorities which adopted a local plan containing strategic policies in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 monitoring years, i.e. just over 5 years ago. A review of PINS data in September 2023 revealed that 55 local authorities fell within this criteria, and suggested that many had not completed a review of their local plan, triggering our investigation.
Our original thesis expected locational, political or policy trends to determine the progress of the reviews. For example, we expected factors such as green belt coverage, political control, or significant changes to the local housing need figures would prompt or stall the progress on any review. However, the resultant data did not reveal such obvious patterns and indeed showed that many more authorities had undertaken a review of their local plans than the PINS data suggested.
There is no standard approach to the process of reviewing local plans and authorities’ interpretation of the process can differ significantly. This Insight Focus provides several case studies to demonstrate varying ways in which local plan reviews have been conducted. We will also examine the impact that the proposed plan-making reforms are having on the review process.  But first, we lay out the basis for the five-year review as determined by planning law, policy, and guidance.

The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 (as amended)

Regulation 10A outlines the legal requirement to review local plans and states that all local planning authorities must complete a review of a local plan every five years from the date of adoption.

Paragraph 33 adds that the review should assess whether the policies in local plans and spatial development strategies need updating. This should occur “at least once every five years” and policies “should then be updated as necessary”. If the applicable local housing need figure has changed “significantly” then relevant strategic policies will need updating at least once every five years.  An earlier review might be required if the housing need figure is expected to change significantly in the near future. There is minimal guidance provided on the process of undertaking such a review, beyond stating that it “should take into account changing circumstances affecting the area, or any relevant changes in national policy”.
Planning Practice Guidance on Plan-Making
Paragraph reference 61-064-20190315 states that “the review process is a method to ensure that a plan and the policies within remains effective”. Paragraph reference 61-065-20190723 includes a non-exhaustive list of matters a local authority “can consider” (not must) when determining whether a plan or policies within it should be updated.  Paragraph reference 61-068-20190723 adds that a local authority “may need to gather new evidence to inform their review” and is expected to have due regard to the Duty to Cooperate, although this reference in the PPG will need to be updated following the revocation of the Duty to Cooperate through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act.

Information an authority can consider when determining whether policies need updating:


  • Conformity with national planning policy;
  • Changes to local circumstances, such as a change in Local Housing Need;
  • Their Housing Delivery Test performance;
  • Whether the authority can demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable sites for housing;
  • Whether issues have arisen that may impact on the deliverability of key site allocations;
  • Their performance in relation to planning appeals;
  • The success of policies against indicators in the development plan as set out in their Authority Monitoring Report;
  • The impact of changes to higher tier plans;
  • Plan-making activity by other authorities, such as whether they have identified that they are unable to meet all their housing need;
  • Significant economic changes that may impact on viability; and,
  • Whether any new social, environmental or economic priorities may have arisen.

Our Results

The Review Process
The law, policy and guidance laid out above makes a clear requirement for five-year reviews to assess whether local plan policies need updating but does not expressly prescribe a method for this. Although the PPG provides some potential matters to consider, its guidance is neither specific nor binding, leading to variations in how local authorities can review their policies. Ultimately the approach to undertaking the review process is a planning judgment that needs to be made by the local authority officers and members. Helping to fill this void, the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) produced a Local Plan Route Mapper Toolkit in 2021, Part 1 and 2 of which provide matrices to assist local plan reviews.  These are intended to help local authorities assess plans and determine whether any policies are out-of-date.  The results allow a decision to be made, and importantly justified, on whether the plan remains effective or requires an update.  This toolkit was completed and published by many local authorities in our sample, showing how valued this more specific guidance is.
However, many local authorities did not have such a clear review process, and often did not separate the review and local plan update. In these cases, the authorities did not benefit from as clear an assessment of policies as those that did use the PAS toolkit. Instead, the update process was often itself called a “review” with the evidence gathering and public consultations on the plan update all considered as part of the “review”.

Case Study: Waverley Borough Council

Waverley Borough Council was one of the local authorities that utilised the PAS toolkit to complete its local plan review. The results of the review were presented to the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee in January 2023, just under five years after the Local Plan was adopted (February 2018).
The three aspects of their review included:
  • Consultation with Duty to Cooperate bodies including neighbouring local authorities and statutory bodies (including Environment Agency, Historic England, and Natural England);
  • An assessment of the consistency of local plan policies with the current NPPF; and,
  • Use of the PAS Local Plan Route Mapper & Toolkit.
The Council completed the PAS toolkit drawing on information provided through the other two aspects of its review. The results of the toolkit allowed the Council to conclude that a full update would be required, and to identify the key reasons for this, such as areas where the Plan was considered out-of-date against new national policy. Going forward, this can help to structure and focus the update process.
To Update or not to Update
While it is a statutory requirement to undertake a review of local plans, the scope of this process is limited to assessing the effectiveness of adopted local plan policies. Local authorities will not necessarily be required to update their plans as a result of their review; an update would only follow the review if it deems this to be is necessary. However, the PPG states that “most plans are likely to require updating in whole or in part at least every 5 years” (Paragraph reference 61-062-20190315).
Our research revealed that the vast majority of local authorities that undertook a review did conclude that an update was necessary with only five of the local authorities that had completed a five-year review determining that no update was needed. PAS highlights that this decision “will need to be clearly evidenced and justified" and “able to stand up to scrutiny”.  In the cases we reviewed, these justifications were published and presented at a Council meeting, as in the case study below.  However, there is no requirement for the results of the five-year review to be externally audited, leaving the local authority in control of whether they update their local plan or not.

Case Study: Exmoor National Park Authority


One of the local planning authorities that decided not to update its local plan was Exmoor National Park (ENP). It had followed a similar review process to Waverley Borough Council above, including completing a policy assessment using the PAS toolkit. An online survey and stakeholder workshop had also been held, and three Topic Papers on Housing and Communities, Economy, and Environment were published. The review concluded that the local plan remained effective and an update was not required. These results were presented at a Council meeting where Members agreed with the recommendation not to update, justified by the outcomes of the review process.
However, whilst the review process had concluded that an update was not required, it did identify areas for further action in each of the three topic areas above. These included producing additional guidance for applicants on affordable housing delivery, biodiversity net gain, and climate change. This is a positive example of where the review process has highlighted gaps in policy and initiated other work, despite not resulting in the preparation of an updated local plan.


Results of the five-Year Review
For those Local Authorities who had completed their five-Year Review, the following conclusions were reached:

An update may be either full or partial in coverage and must follow the plan-making procedure, including an examination by a planning inspector. A partial update may be limited to those policies found to be ineffective during the review but, according to PAS, a full update will be required if at least one of the following is true:
  1. The policies update is likely to lead to a material change in the housing requirement;
  2. The current growth strategy and/or spatial distribution of growth is not fit for purpose and is likely to change under the update; or,
  3. The update is likely to affect more than one strategic site or one or more strategic policies.
Partial vs Full Updates
The following overall split between those local authorities updating their local plans fully or partially was seen:

Key Reasons for Updates

Common reasons for plan or policy updates among our sample included changes to national planning policy, responding to the climate crisis, and new local housing need figures.  This latter point was particularly prevalent in local authorities’ justifications for undertaking an update.
This figure shows the number of authorities citing the following reasons for updating their local plans (more than one could be cited).

As set out above, paragraph 33 of the NPPF requires strategic policies to be updated if the local housing need figure has changed significantly or is expected to do so. The PPG adds that a significant change will be considered to have occurred where a plan has been adopted prior to the implementation of the standard method for calculating housing need and based on a number that is significantly below the standard method figure. As our selection criteria covered local plans adopted from April 2016 to March 2018, all were adopted before the introduction of the standard method. However, as there is no provided definition of “significant” in this context, it is up to local authorities to decide whether their housing need has changed significantly. 
The introduction of the standard methodology for the assessment of local housing need in 2018 resulted in many local authorities experiencing a change in the local housing need compared to that set out in their adopted local plan, even in cases where this was just months old.  Whether this change was considered “significant” or not is a matter of judgment as no definition is provided in national policy.  The case study of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council provides an example of its interpretation.

Case Study: Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council



Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council (BDBC) adopted its Local Plan in May 2016 and completed a review of its policies by May 2019. This was intended to consider “changing local circumstances, new strategic priorities and updates in national policy”. It concluded that the policies generally remained relevant and therefore did not require updating to remain sound in terms of national guidance.

However, BDBC stated that as a result of the introduction of the standard methodology since the adoption of the current Local Plan, the Borough’s housing need figure was highly likely to have changed. The standard methodology identified a local housing need figure of 955 dwellings per annum – 12% above the adopted figure of 850 dpa. In the light of this, BDBC concluded that its Local Plan would need to be updated in order to meet the requirements of NPPF Paragraph 33.

Interestingly, the latest standard method figure for BDBC (as of January 2024) using updated input figures is 830, showing the difficulty in creating static plans in this dynamic and ever-changing sphere.

A further update to the standard method in December 2020 introduced a 35% uplift to the local housing need figure for the 20 largest urban areas.  As a Lichfields blog showed at the time, the new figures were “markedly higher than most current Local Plan requirement figures for those cities”.  As such, this uplift was seen to trigger a local plan update in several of the local authorities in our assessment, with one clear example seen in Birmingham.

Case Study: Birmingham City Council



Birmingham City Council (BCC) adopted its Local Plan in January 2017. A Local Plan Review Assessment Report was published in April 2021 using the PAS toolkit. This concluded that a full update was required. A key driver for this was the 35% “urban centres” uplift that formed part of the changes to the standard methodology in December 2020. BCC stated that “this will increase Birmingham’s housing numbers considerably when compared to the BDP [Birmingham Development Plan] housing requirement”.

The housing requirement contained within the adopted BDP is 2,555 dpa. This is just 38% of the standard methodology figure of 6,750 dpa that applied at the time of the BCC report. The latest figures (as of 2024) show that the local housing need figure has increased even further to 7,090 dpa. There is no doubt that this was considered a significant change. BCC therefore concluded that it was “critical for the city to respond to this through a plan update” and undertake a “thorough review of the city’s capacity to accommodate as much development as possible”. The updated Local Plan is now being prepared, but adoption is not currently expected until Summer 2026.




Five Years (and the Rest)
The vast majority (but not all: 47 out of 55) of local authorities that are required to have undertaken an initial review of their local plans had completed this review or commenced work on the update process by the required deadline. However, despite the legal requirement to undertake a review within the requisite five-year timeframe, there did not seem to be any consequence for those authorities that failed to do so. Notedly, this figure differs greatly from the PINS data which suggested that only 14 local authorities had reviewed their plans, posing questions about what they consider to be a review.   
The lifecycle of a plan captures the point from when a plan is adopted (when it is up-to-date and effective), the review period, and the time taken to prepare and adopt a replacement local plan. For those authorities whose reviews resulted in a decision to update the local plan, this was just the start of a lengthy process to replace out-of-date policies. Given the nature of the plan-making process, the time between the adoption of the existing local plan and the expected adoption of the updated local plan often extends beyond ten years.  The plans and any policies found to be ineffective during the review continue to be in place whilst a new plan is prepared. 
Emerging reform to the plan-making system includes a new 30-month timeframe for preparing and adopting plans which, if achievable, should help to reduce this long wait.  The reform also intends to give more weight to the development plan, meaning this speedier process to adopt updated plans will be even more important.

However, despite the reform intending to speed up the plan-making process, we saw clear examples within our sample of where it was having the opposite effect. The uncertainty surrounding future plan-making policy, and the transitional arrangements to the new system, were cited as reasons to delay the review or update, as in the case of Sefton below.

Case Study: Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council



Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council (SMBC) adopted its Local Plan in April 2017 and reported the results of a high-level review to Cabinet over six years later in June 2023. SMBC stated that its Local Plan would need a partial update as several policies were out-of-date. However, a decision was made to delay the update process, due to the government’s announcement of upcoming changes to plan-making policy. The government has set a deadline for plans created under the current system to be submitted by June 2025 and adopted by the end of 2026.

SMBC concluded it would not be possible to meet the June 2025 deadline, therefore “it would be reasonable to delay a new Local Plan until the reformed planning system is introduced”.

The government has set out that the earliest a local authority could start preparing a plan under the new system is Autumn 2024. This means SMBC will continue to be in limbo until at least then, by which point its adopted Local Plan will be nearly eight years old.




Proposed Plan-Making Reform
Guidance on a new plan-making system is expected in Autumn 2024. The proposed changes to the system first emerged under the December 2022 consultations on planning reform under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. A consultation on plan-making reforms was then held in Summer 2023. The proposals recognise and seek to address the slow-moving nature of plan-making, including improving the requirement to undertake a five-year review of plans.  There will be a clearer requirement for local authorities to "commence an update" to their local plan by the fifth anniversary of adoption.  This effectively removes the option for local authorities to complete a review and conclude that an update is not required.  DLUHC states that this is to “encourage a more rolling rhythm of updates to plans wherever possible, ensuring plans and their evidence are routinely kept up to date”.  
As mentioned above, the updated plan will also have to follow a new 30-month timeframe, meaning the new local plan will need to be adopted at the latest 30 months from the commencement of the preparation process – although it is noted that the Summer 2023 consultation suggested that inspectors can pause the examination process for up to six months, which would extend the process beyond 30-months timeframe.  The combination of a requirement to commence an update every five years, and the shortened timeframe to adopt this update aims to make local plans more effective.   Having more up-to-date plans is one way to improve the effectiveness of a plan-led system.  However, the evidence-gathering and engagement processes that inform the scope and content of local plans also matter.  These take time and could put strain on the 30-month timeframe.  The effectiveness of the proposed timeframes will also depend on the penalties for local authorities, and other bodies required to assist, not achieving them.
In the Good Books
Only four of 55 local authorities in our analysis have adopted an updated local plan at the time of writing (January 2024).
One of these (Ipswich Borough Council) commenced an immediate review on the year of adoption (2017), as this was a condition of it being found sound at Examination.  The Planning Inspector stated that the need for new housing, employment land and retail floorspace should be reviewed in the short term in partnership with neighbouring authorities.  The replacement Local Plan was adopted in March 2022, although it was not instigated by the five-year review requirement.
That leaves just three local authorities which have adopted an updated local plan in response to the conclusions of a five-year review. These three authorities all worked together to prepare the Central Lincolnshire Local Plan, as detailed below. Accordingly, from our sample of 55 local authorities, the five-year review process has resulted in just one adopted local plan update. 
So are two (or three) heads better than one when producing a timely local plan review? Or do too many cooks spoil the broth?  Indicating the latter, three other local authorities in our sample are jointly working on a review of the North Northamptonshire Local Plan, which was adopted in 2016.  Assuming no delay, the expected adoption date of the updated Local Plan is 2026.  This 10-year gap is one of the longest we saw across all 55 local authorities, a marked difference from Central Lincolnshire.

Case Study: Central Lincolnshire Local Plan



Lincoln City Council, North Kesteven District Council and West Lindsey District Council jointly adopted the Central Lincolnshire Local Plan in April 2017. The Local Plan Team Leader presented a report to the Strategic Planning Committee in January 2019 outlining changes to national policy since April 2017. This centred on the July 2018 NPPF update which included the new five-year review requirement, the standard methodology (which actually produced a figure that was lower than the adopted housing requirement), and the Housing Delivery Test. The report noted that the adopted Plan did not incorporate these, making it potentially less robust in making and defending decisions. It was therefore recommended that a review should be undertaken immediately rather than waiting until the fifth anniversary of adoption.

The review concluded that only a partial update was required, as much of the Local Plan was operating effectively and much of the evidence base was still up to date, given the Plan was only two years old. An updated version was adopted in April 2023, exactly six years after the previous Plan’s adoption, making this the fastest update in our sample.



Findings and Recommendations

Our research has focused on local authorities which adopted local plans containing strategic policies in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 monitoring years, but did not identify specific policy, political or locational trends for local plan reviews. It is important to recognise that the effectiveness of the local plan review tool is hampered by the inability of a significant number of local planning authorities to get plans adopted in a timely manner in the first instance. The review mechanism only affects the most proactive authorities that can get up to date plans in place.
Drawing the analysis together, we would, however, set out the following three key findings:
1.  The current requirement to review local plans within five years is ineffective at ensuring local plans are kept up to date
Generally, where a local authority had a (relatively) recently adopted plan, the statutory requirement to review it within five-years is effective. 47 of the 55 authorities in our sample had undertaken the statutory review within the five-year period. It does not, however, provide any certainty on the timeframe for the plan being updated following the statutory review. 
Preparing updated plans is a lengthy process and the government’s consultation on plan-making reforms states that preparing a plan takes, on average, seven years. A significant proportion of authorities in our sample concluded that their plans needed updating following a review that took place towards the end of the statutory five-year period. This means that if these authorities were to take the average seven years to prepare an updated plan it would be 12-years between respective plan adoptions.  This is too long and the circumstances that were considered at the point of review can change significantly in the time it takes for an updated plan to be prepared and adopted, as demonstrated by the Basingstoke and Deane case study.
The government recognises that the current process is ineffective. Its consultation on plan-making reforms states that the requirement for plans to be reviewed at least once every five years will be replaced by clearer wording that requires work on the update to commence within the five years. This is intended to reduce any delay between a decision to update following a review and the commencement of that update, and will remove the opportunity for local authorities to conclude that no update is required.  It is unclear how this will materialise in national policy and guidance, but together with the proposed 30-month preparation timeframes consulted on, it should, in theory, result in a maximum of seven-and-a-half years between plan adoptions.
The statutory review requirement is also ineffective for the ‘worst-offending’ authorities, many of which have plans that were adopted more than a decade ago. These authorities are aware that their local plans are out of date and have commenced preparation of a plan in some form but have experienced delays, withdrawn plans, or had plans found unsound.
2.  There has been a lack of clear guidance on what authorities must consider when undertaking their review
The NPPF is not specific on the circumstances that would lead to a local authority needing to update its local plan. The only factor referenced for necessitating an update is “if their applicable local housing need figure has changed significantly.” The PPG defines ‘significantly’ in this context as where a plan has been adopted prior to the standard methodology being implemented, on the basis of a number that is significantly below the number generated using the standard methodology, or has been subject to a cap where the plan has been adopted using the standard methodology.
The PPG provides a non-exclusive list of what can be considered when reviewing local plans, but not what must be considered. There are also no thresholds provided in the PPG criteria in terms of what would necessitate a review. This leaves the precise nature of each review up to the discretion of each individual authority, as evidenced by the broad range of approaches across our sample.  However, the high utilisation of the PAS toolkit for assessing plans and determining whether policies are out-of-date suggests that more specific national planning policy, guidance, or matrices would be welcomed by local authorities to assist with the review process.
The government’s consultation on plan-making reforms proposes that plans will need to set out a detailed approach for monitoring and ongoing review.  Whilst no additional information is provided in the consultation document, it suggests that local authorities will be able to set their own criteria and thresholds for local plan reviews that are rolled out under the reforms (i.e. in addition to the requirement for a review to commence within five years of adoption of the local plan). If a local planning authority clearly articulates a set of criteria and thresholds that would trigger a review, it would provide a level of clarity.  However, this would only become relevant once authorities have prepared and adopted a plan under the reformed approach.
3.  The roll-out of the plan-making reforms is inadvertently delaying plan updates and undermining the review process
The intention of the plan-making reforms is to encourage a more rolling rhythm of updates, ensuring plans and their evidence are routinely kept up-to-date. However, the proposed reforms are currently having the opposite effect because the regulation, policy and guidance to enable the preparation of local plans under the reforms will not be available until at least Autumn 2024 and will be dependent on the timings and outcomes of the general election. In the meantime, local authorities are expected to continue to prepare and update their plans under the current guidance, but against a deadline for submitting plans for examination under the current legal framework of 30 June 2025.  This is already being cited by some local authorities as an unworkable deadline.
The current set of circumstances leaves a theoretical scenario whereby an authority undertakes its statutory review in Summer 2024 and concludes that its plan needs updating. It then would have less than a year to update its evidence base, prepare an updated plan, consult on it multiple times, and submit it for examination. This is not practical and will mean that authorities concluding their reviews will not commence preparation of updated plans. Instead, they would be likely to await the new guidance.  This is undermining the purpose of the statutory five-year review.  It has already played out in Sefton and is likely to become even more prevalent as the June 2025 deadline draws closer, and the new regulation, policy, and guidance remains outstanding. 
To avoid this scenario, the transitional period would need to be extended for authorities that commence preparation of a plan before the new regulation, policy and guidance is published in Autumn 2024.

Insight authors


Simon Coop

Senior Director

Brian O’Connor

Planning Director


Maximilian Kidd-Rossiter

Senior Planner

Becca Gray