I wrote this piece in 2010 the week of the letter to LPA saying, prematurely as it turned out, the regional plans had been abolished. Looking at it again it seems just as relevant and Id thought id share it with a wider audience. (I said at the end I was so digusted I was leaving the country, I took that out because I did but where I moved to had a revolution).
Imagine if hospitals suddenly shut up shop. Imagine if major areas such as cancer care ceased – and within a few days. There would of course be a media frenzy – yet the same as happened with housebuilding and forward planning and there has been not a whisper beyond the pages of Planning.
The ‘shutdown’ in forward planning for housing has been dramatic. 100 regional planners are to lose their jobs within months. Far more local forward planning jobs remain frozen, whole teams in some areas are empty. RTPI, NHF, HBUK, TCPA and POS are in crisis lobbying mode. What is worse this is an entirely self inflicted wound, not one driven by spending cuts. Planning, unlike most public services, could, push comes to shove, just about survive from rises to fee income.
Withdrawl of the joint core strategy for the two South Oxfordshire districts is probably the first of many. As emerging core strategies were a (weak) material planning consideration where there are locally unpopular schemes driven by housing targets (cue most local authorities) it is likely that many councillors will see this as less painful that not having a five year housing supply – not least if there is no longer a housing target to base a trajectory off. A ripple effect is likely to run across the country in the following weeks unless ministers take urgent action, rather than taking such action they are egging it on. Within six months if not less most new strategic schemes and core strategies will be in the bin, together with the potential for many millions of homes over a 15-20 year period. Even if there was a dramatic turnaround, even if a new policy saw major new allocations in three or so years time we will have lost several years of supply of new allocations coming on board. It is a fact that new plans always produce a surge in completions. We should have learned this from the 2004 reforms – it is never a good idea to restart plan making even if reforms are needed – the consequences are the build up of a housing numbers backlog very painful to resolve and the storing up of conditions of scarcity to create another disastrous house price boom
Given that ministers seem to have been advised that the route of interim targets was wrought with problems (see my article in Planning xxx), they seem to have pulled the nuclear option. As RSSs are part of the development plan by law only a change in the law (in the Queens speech) can get rid of them completely, and even then the numbers they contained would be in lower tier plans. Withdrawing RSSs by ministerial direction would also be ill advised. As the RSSs were mostly SEAd against a ‘do nothing’ baseline, withdrawal could easily be challenged in the courts as not complying with the EU SEA directive. As indeed could any withdrawal of a draft core strategy – be warned.
There is caselaw from (a local plan) in Wealden, the LPA won (just) because of a promise to swiftly get on with a new core strategy providing housing supply (we are still waiting); my guess is that in some places a challenge this time would stand a much greater chance of success.
So, you can imagine the civil servants, advice was given that a letter should be written to not treat RSSs as material, ‘but this will have consequences Minister…’ I get angry at the implicit assumption of the British Civil Service – let ministers hang themselves and we will pick up the mess in a few years. The consequences here are too grave.
The body politic is now like someone with cancer ignoring advice from a consultant in favour of a new age treatment. What is the assumption? That local target setting will somehow be ok in the end and make up the numbers to satisfy the stated aim of the Prime Minister and Chancellor to raise housebuilding numbers? Lets look at the facts.
If you are a local authority where your countryside is green belt or national park then you would normally be expected to provide for less housing than local demographic growth would imply. In any event the resulting aging population will lead to younger first time buyers moving away. Previously regional planning, or even the letters with targets from the Nicholas Ridley era, would have made the numbers up with extra housing in some areas. We had grown used to calling these ‘growth areas’. Do these growth areas still exist? It is staggering to think that the plans for MKSM and the Thames Gateway effectively no longer apply, ‘depreciated’ overnight.
We should not forget that concepts such as ‘Green Belt’ and ‘National Park’ were forged alongside that of regional planning, one without the other does not make sense. Growth areas are there to take the pressure off constrained areas. Without regional planning the pressures on Green Belts could become so great that it could weaken and possibly discredit the idea of them. We should not forget that prior to the 2001 election there were serious arguments in Whitehall, emanating from number 10, about whether to abolish Green Belts altogether.
Now imagine you are local authority submitting an ‘open source’ core strategy, you will need to show in your SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) you will have looked at alternatives. Previously you would not have needed to show the consequences in housing terms of a low target because it would have been made up elsewhere and the options SEAd regionally. You will now need to SEA alternatives beyond the plan boundary, a nightmare of duplication.
A nod and a wink have been given already on the floor of the commons to MPs from constituencies such as Daventry that they can now choose whether or not to be growth areas. The consequences area that such ‘overspill’ will need to be contained locally unless an LPA agrees voluntarily to be a ‘receiver’. We could be back to arrangements similar to when the LCC/GLC used to bribe towns such as Andover to receive their overspill. We could also be back to the days of the 80s when authorities such as Hampshire and Hertfordshire either implied banning all housing in-migration or all employment generation creating housing demand. Don’t expect London to pick up the tab this time, housebuilding in London is falling, big regeneration projects frozen and backland development likely to be banned. The illusions of urban regeneration in the ‘core cities’ look also chimeras driven by unsustainable housing demand fuelled by growth in public sector employment, concealing real economic contraction in places like Birmingham. Small towns are on their own.
Now if the Inspectors report were non-binding imagine if that inspector rejected a core strategy for not taking a fair share of ‘overspill’. The local authority could just reject the report right? Wrong, again caselaw from the past rears its head, Miller and others v Wycombe District Council  JPL 951, minds need to be applied to the findings and fresh reasoning and evidence given where necessary, in the ‘frontloaded’ evidence based system post 2004 this might imply going back several stages rather than adopting. Dust off your old copies of Victor Moore, as all the old caselaw about the scope to make changes without second inquiries will come back into play. It is likely that neighbouring authorities will interject and ultimately arbitrating decisions will fall to the Secretary of State, I hope he likes long nights in the Ministry.
It is useful to step back and understand the scale of the problem if ‘growth areas’ etc. ceased to exist. From papers published by the last government the assumption was, since the last Housing Green Paper, that Growth areas and Ecotowns would accommodate about half of the ‘additional’ household growth implied by the lasted household growth forecasts – that is even before any ‘backlog’ of housing from the NHPAU figures is counted in. The implication of this is that the ‘rest’ of non-metropolitan districts would now need to see their housing figures increased by around 50% to make up the difference. Do ministers realise that their policy of ‘localism’ imply effectively increasing by such a massive scale housing around pretty market towns and villages, probably well away from main sources of employment, in conservative constituencies? Local choice would simply imply that some smaller settlements could take less only if nearby smaller settlements took a lot lot more. In rejecting one controversial policy they are adopting a suicidal alternative.
Eventually, one way or another, minds will need to be applied as to what system of ‘localism’ above that of the individual local authority will need to be applied. Inevitable ministerial shuffles will provide the cover. Remember how Chris Patten reinvigorated planning.
My guess is that around a third of rural local authorities don’t really need regional plans as simply meeting local demographic growth will suffice, as they are well away from constrained areas and have few major opportunities. Here RSSs were always a delaying distraction. In other areas there will need to be some joint arrangements between giving and receiving authorities, particularly in those counties with areas wholly or partly in the Green Belt, counties may have a returned role to play here – where counties remain – but in some areas issues straddle county boundaries.
In other areas the problem simply is one of under-bounded local authorities created from 1974 gerrymandering. Classic examples include Norwich, Northampton, Harlow, Cambridge, Oxford, Worcester, Nottingham and Leicester. Simply redrawing LA boundaries sensibly one or two Parishes out would solve these problems as would continuing with or setting up joint planning committees on a city-region basis. Here localism will only work if the SoS has big stick powers in default to require or set up such arrangements. In the Thames Gateway we might see two giant elected development corporations, one for each side of the Thames.
I would guess to that as recovery kicks in that in a year or two we will see pressure to set up ‘city regional’ studies to look at the long term growth options for areas around places such as Milton Keynes and Cambridge, with the Secretary of State advising local authorities to ‘play close attention’ to their findings. Much of this will be reinventing the wheel but when you have been in planning long enough that is the consequence of the politics of ‘not invented here’.
I would also guess that more collaborative arrangements between givers and receivers will be looked at, there are good models on the continent here, for example in Bavaria a small town might say, ok we will accept the extra housing, but give us the money for that sports centre we have always dreamed of.
Overall my best guess is that any rescued system will be built bottom up and pragmatically from sub-regional components – not top down regionally.