Ministers – A Dozen Reasons Why Local Plans Take Geological Time

A recap

Last week Keith Holland of PINS – (so well known for his indiscretion that one Essex Authority invited him to do a presentation to members just so they could film it and send it to Eric Pickles and say – look this is your real Green Belt policy) said:

I think ministers are losing patience with planning,” 

“They wonder ‘why is it taking so long for local plans to be put in place?’

They would appear to have lost patience already after Brandon Lewis in November last year quite deliberately stressed that local plans are entirely optional.

The number of submitted plans is slowing to a crawl, and if the number of newly adopted plans each year is likely soon to be in single figures.  More plans have been published in draft (the only stat the DCLG mention in speeches) but not getting any further, whilst plans adopted since 2004 are getting more and more out of date.  Rather than approaching a position of nationwide up to date plan coverage we are getting further and further away, to the extent that plans are so out of date that having an adopted local plan makes no difference to appeal success rates.

The planning seems  to be increasingly split between those who have given up on local plans altogether and those, like the DCLG select committee who naively think everything will be ok if we can get 300 new local plans adopted within 3 years – an increase in performance of 10 fold – it ain’t going to happen.

Pickles and Lewis certainly arn’t the first ministers to toy with giving up on local plans.  Tony Blair came within a whisker of abolishing them.  Prescott was contemptuous of local planning committees perceived Nimbyism.  The 2004 act reforms were in many ways a last chance saloon.  Lord Falconers phrase that plans should take ‘months not years’ was a sign of that frustration (i’m afraid to say that line was lifted from a paper of mine).  Yet the unnecessarily diregiste nature of the 2004 act led to a slowing not a quickening of local plan production. The one lesson that the NPPF should have taken on was not.

In order to solve this problem – to the extent it can be solved – we have to understand the problem, to the extent it can’t be solved we have to look for workable alternatives.  In a future article I’ve promised to look at the post election reform agenda, for now lets explain to ministers why plans are taking decades not years (in the case of York centuries – i’m sure their ghosts carry copies of plan drafts).

1. Keith Holland

Nothing personal Keith,  we all have contributed to this problem.  I’m referring here to his widely held doctrine that draft plans has zero weight after the 2004 act until they were found sound, as they might be found unsound.  A doctrine with no legal foundation many of us argued and ministers eventually agreed. It had the same logic as saying children should not take into account what they read  in a physics textbook because one day scientists might find some of it incorrect.  What the Holland doctrine did was dissuade local authorities for pressing on with local plans and approving schemes in draft plans – which now become difficult (certainly before the NPPF) as they saw adoption as years away.  The incentive to get on with plans, as they could become material very quickly, went away.

2.  Members have no Appetite or Incentive to Get on with Plan Making

 I have been told many times privately that members of an authority do not see local plan making as a priority, indeed the opposite. This is particularly the case in Green Belt authorities in the South East. Plan making is not a statutory function and is seen as a bag of pain.  In rural districts planning is the only big political function they have.  Most chief executives dream that planning issues would just go away, then, bar the budget, they would have a very easy life free of cllrs endlessly on the phone to them.  There was no incentive to do plans quickly and with realistic and clear options that said where might or might not be developed.  This just brings out 20,000+ responses.  It certainly was unlikely to happen in the two years running up to a local election, and in authorities with the 1/3rd reelection it was never a good time. The PDG gave for a time a financial incentive to get on and it worked, then it was abolished and replaced by the much less incentivising (and failed and ruinously expensive) New Homes Bonus, just as plans starting powering forward.  Taking the foot off the gas led to a stall.  Many authorities too are finely politically balanced and don’t have sufficient majorities to force plans through their majority groups.  In some cases such as Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland cllrs have rejected local plans at submission stage even though their is no real clear alternative to the recommended strategy, simply because of local opposition. In one case, Coventry, a plan was withdrawn on the day it was adopted, in another, Aylesbury, withdrawn just before an examination.  Ministers had made such bonkers withdrawls easier by removing their veto, incentivising short-termism and plan delay,  When local plans were supreme members had some incentive to get on with them, at least with the housing targets they could blame them on Prescott, now they have no political cover and no incentive.  If it were possible to adopt plans quickly cllrs would have the NPPF para. 14 – build what you like where you like- incentive to decide for themselves where housing should  go. But given plans take a long time they have to approve many of the sites ahead of adoption anyway.

3. Planning has been Cut by 27% more than Any other Area of Local Government (National Audit Office)

And they face 57% cuts under current government spending plans according to Tony Travers of LSE.

As a non statutory service it is a Cinderella service compared to say Adult Social services.  Things are brighter in the private sector leading to an exodus of the best staff to them.   For many of those left suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect 

John Cleese explains

In order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place,which means — and this is terribly funny — that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you are absolutely no good at it.”

And of course the system often ensures that those that dont rock the boat, that don’t produce politically troublesome plans in short order often rise to be in charge of not producing them. The whole situation is made worse by cllrs who promise to switch resources back to planning applications once plans are adopted – giving no incentive to plan making staff to be productive as they fear redundancy.

4. Caroline Spelman MP

In August 2009 when Shadow Secretary of State  she wrote to all conservative council leaders asking them to slow down plan making and remove ‘unwanted’ proposals.  The clear implication being that under the conservatives there would be less housing and local authorities would set their own (lower) targets.

I would encourage councils to say ‘no’ when the Government attempts to force your council to act at a speed which is not a binding legal necessity. Given the likelihood of a general election by May 2009 and the prospect of ‘emerging policy’ after that, the planning process will not be sufficiently delayed in a way that would allow developers to submit speculative bids based on the current RSS.

a slightly delayed Local Development Framework process will make the democratic choice at the general election more stark and clear for the electorate: a vote for democratic accountability and sustainable development from Conservatives on one hand, or unelected, unwanted, unsustainable urban sprawl from a discredited and bullying Labour regime on the other.

As a result plan making slowed to a crawl.  Over 270,000 houses were removed from plan allocations.  Far from removing national targets it made them struicter through the 5 years +20% rule and the duty to take overspill.  All of the authorities that stopped Green belt reviews are carrying them out again.  Under the NPPF we had the institutionalisation of sprawl as development was pushed further out to villages away from strategic sites.  As most backbench Tory mps and council leaders will admit privately this was a con.  What it did was slow plan making and see the temporary deletion of some if the largest and most strategically important housing allocations in the country.

5, The Sedgefield Method

The NPPF was too badly drafted to work out how to  calculate your 5 year housing target even though that was its Casus belli.  A key uncertainty was how to include any backlog of housing need, over a 15 year plan period or quicker, such as 5 years.  Different appeals decisions quickly created confusion, so we had the Sedgefield Method and the Liverpool Method. Sedgefield meeting the backlog over 5 years.  The aim of the government was to do whatever housing built quickest, it has had the opposite effect through not thinking through the practicalities.  Those areas with the biggest backlog need the biggest sites.  But the Liverpool method incentivises lots of small sites, which require much more staff resources to check assess and deal with landowners.  The theory is small sites can be delivered more quickly, but landowners saying sites are developable does not mean they are, and large site developers often drip feed plots on large sites to keep prices high. Large sites can be delivered at a rapid rate when there are development agreements, there are numerous development corporation examples.  As a result there was little incentive for local planning authorities to allocate large sites as they didn’t help the five year supply and generated opposition for little short term gain.   What is worse is that Sedgefield becomes a ponzi game much like the Greek Debt – set an unachievable target – oh you have a backlog – you need more of the same  – you have, having a stable land allocation bank you can consult on and base a plan on becomes impossible. fallen even more short (rinse repeat). The reason why countries like France and Canada develop much more housing than we do is because they develop large sites subdivided into smaller plot, not because they have much greater scattered rural development.  Indeed the rural areas in both countries are in many areas losing population.  The strategy of the plan should drive the phasing (as some wise inspectors realise) not vice versa, for development plans the NPPF should leave this to local decision and only apply Liverpool in default.

6. Trying to Fudge (or Even Work Out) Objectively Assessed Housing Need

Local authorities working out their own housing need objectively is the equivalent of Turkeys stuffing themselves for Christmas.  The single biggest cause of plan delay after political prevarication. There was little incentive to allocate more, especially as the New Homes Bonus was poorly designed and didn’t incentivise new allocations, not even ring-fenced to planning. It has certainly been less successful than the scheme it replaced in getting plan and allocations in place and this is undeniable.

Local planning authorities had every reason to massage numbers down to reduce political backlash.  Endless obfuscations and dodgy methods were used, such as resetting base and end dates, pretending migration didn’t exist, assuming people would work into their 80s reducing in migration to meet job growth, deliberately suppressing job growth, promoting job growth but assuming people would live elsewhere, assuming the recession (and low household growth) would last forever.  The list goes on and on.

Of course inspectors mostly saw through this, and in those few cases where they let the wool be pulled over their eyes they were challenged in court.  As a result an increasing mass of complex EIP precedents built up which effectively became a manual on how to do it.  But far from becoming simpler this lead to understanding the housing numbers game became the preserve of experts, who had like me to carry around all of the precedents and caselaw in large lever arch files and explain it, painfully line by line as we went through draft SHMA reports.  Often SHMAs were not, they wern’t strategic and they didn’t cover housing market areas, and so they had to be done again, at great delay.  A really big hurdle to overcome was explaining that OAN had nothing to do with constraints, let alone policy constraints like Green Belt, this was a matter for strategy.  Many LPAs refused to accept this (even though EIP findings were clear).  I remember once having to get PAS to write a letter on it at peer review.  Thankfully the Courts in the Huinstan and and Solihull cases confirmed the NPPF did introduce this two-step.  Until then though we had two years of policy based evidence rather than evidence based policy leading to huge delays for most LPAs.  The government did not help as it took them this long to issue SHMA guidance that really could have been written on the back of an envelope.

7. The Duke of York Syndrome


Of course the Duke of York is known for marching up the stairs and down again (what he does at the top I have no idea).

We have had over a decade of endless change in planning during which time things have got worse rather than better. Crude and sweeping solutions have been implemented without regard to how they will work on the ground.  There have endless changes to planning policy and this hasn’t changed with the NPPF as policy is now endlessly changed in ‘guidance’ often at no notice and without consultation.  A single change can render a whole round of plan consultation out of date and required to be done again.   Ministers endlessly undo and change policy and procedures because of failure to listen and understand problems the first time around.  Often impractical policy is forced through by the Treasury, then quietly and covertly undone by the DCLG when the Treasury are thought not to be looking.  When the Chancellors eyes are back on the ball things being undone again.    A good example being ‘pd’ rights for changes of use from industrial to housing. With an election approaching Ministers have amended policy to try to slow down Green Belt reviews (the effect of which would be to slow down plans elsewhere also as the need is displaced) confusing local planning authorities who were previously told they had to meet need in full, and in certain cases like Mole Valley and Guildford this is slowing down the whole local plan process.

8.  The Duty to Prevaricate

The joint third reason for delay.  Where to start. As we always say on here a duty to cooperate not a duty to agree.  So they rarely do. There is no inventive to the strategic receiver to agree any overspill, any party can exercise a veto, which makes it as dysfunctional as coalition policy on windfarms (and for the same reason).   Duty to cooperate without any mechanism to agree in practice is a duty to prevaricate.  The problem is not the duty, which is good planning, but in the lack of mechanisms to ensure agreement.  The sanction is your plan being found unlawful if you don’t cooperate and unsound if you don’t give good reason why you cant provide overspill.  The problem then is that the resolution of the conflict is pushed ever further into the future.  Increasingly we are seeing a rebirth of strategic planning as metro areas and their hinterlands realise they need some kind of strategy to determine what overspill goes where, but the rural receivers wont play the gimp and are already making noises that they will do everything to resist the ‘outrageous intrusion’.

9.  Not Understanding Forest Heath

The joint third biggest reason for delay.  The Forest Heath Case simply sets out the requirements of the EU Strategic Environmental Assessment directive as applied to plan making.  You have to consult on realistic options early, simple. However many lpas did everything they could to avoid consulting on realistic options, instead relaying on outdated RSS housing numbers rather than OAN.  Not strategically reviewing Green Belt, not consulting on Garden City etc, options  The thinking was ‘hey we’ve never had to do this before’  and they did not want the hassle that widespread consultation on these options would produce.  However with higher housing numbers through OAN, because inspectors rightly did not consider the depressed household representation (headship) rates from the 2011 census would last forever as the economy recovered,  the old options consulted on became unrealistic and threats from development consortium has lead to more rounds of consultation that would have been unnecessary.  Many of these challenges were at submission (the final) stage and the plan making system was supposed to have become fronloaded.  In my view of any developer leaves it to submission to present a large strategic site they arnt serious and it isn’t a realistic option.

10.Andrew Whitaker (and the HBF)

There was a time when the HBF used to turn up at EIPs on behalf of all of their members.  Indeed that was what EIPs were supposed to be about, a few top table groups discussing the big issues, not a big tent that went on for months.  However with the NPPF tactics changed, rather than fighting trench warfare they would fight a continuous guerrilla insurgency, each and every house builder would draw up their own great fat reports undertaking their own assessment of housing need.  A natural reaction perhaps to policy based evidence.  Again the system got ever more complex and more and more for experts only.  The idea was that if an LPA say produced a report saying 10,000 houses, then if housebuilders produced reports saying 12,000, 15,000, 20,000 then the numbers would be shifted upwards from a false sense of being outnumbered.  This is a classic application of the overton window tactics used by business lobbies.  As a result the system and inspectors ever more drown in paper, and planning reports, rather than being done once well and objectively are doubled, tripled and quadrupled up.

11. Chrispin Blunt MP

The Reigate and Bansted MP.  The Reigate and Basted Plan inspector said they didn’t provide enough housing and their Green Belt didn’t meet national  policy as this requires its boundaries to be defined ‘in perpetuity’  sensible, but Nick Boles MP was furious as this had set out in black and white what was implied in the NPPF. He did not like to wake up and read in the Daily Telegraph that the government was ordering Green Belt reviews, so he blasted off a very poorly worded letter scolding the inspector to not imply they were being ordered.  Which took a week of too and froing letters to fix after we broke the story on this blog. 

Chrispin Blunt MP was opportunist and had rang the PM, we assume that Cameron had given the hairdryer treatment to Boles who panicked. Despite his furious lobbying not 1cm of allocations were undone by Reigategate after lawyers advised that as the LPA has proposed these changes themselves and they had been endorsed by an inspector they could be legally challenged.  The result of Blunts intervention was to spread confusion and delay across all plans in Green Belt authorities.  For a while the prense was that is was no change in policy.  A pretense no longer maintained as NPPG is amended to ‘pretend to tighten policy’ (the Lawyer) and DCLG finally admits NPPG allows for changes in policy.  So Brandon Lewis’s extension of the Blunt/Boles Green Belt doctrine allowed for a deliberately delay of strategic Green Belt reviews until after the election, of course those authorities like Mole Valley and Guildford who took the bait and slowed down their plans will be found out as if they don’t have the evidence to support maintaining Green Belt on land that does not meet Green Belt purposes; their plans will be found incapable of being sound through lack of evidence.  Of course LPAs can maintain Green Belt is an environmental constraint, but if land has no environmental value then the restrictions are policy restrictions and this requires evidence of Green Belt purposes and the weighing and balancing exercise of outside/inside the Green Belt as set out in the NPPF.  The ridiculous position we have now is that inspectors cannot tell LPAs what they have to do to put this right and have a sound plan. The Lewis/Pickles calculation is probably that Green Belt LPAs will realise that they now have zero incentive to get on with plans as there progress might depend on evidence which will require a Green Belt review, so they I think hope they will abandon making plans, rely on the NPPF instead and simply push out objectively assessed housing need to other plans outside the Green Belt delaying them further.  A policy of deliberate delay to avoid sensitive decisions before the general election.    The deal with Cameron and Osborne probably is ok, cunning plan, but the payback is the Green Belt is going to get some Gideon love just after the election, after all he is known as such a fan of it (hosting a Policy Exchange event calling for its abolition).

12. Hopelessly Ambitious LEP Jobs Targets

LEPs now draw up economic growth plans. A useful counter to places like Surrey and Oxfordshire where local politician don’t see this as a priority. The result though is a mismatch between jobs plans and housing plans.  It is myth that regional structures have been abolished, instead the abolition of RDAs led to a vacuum which was filled by more and more complex and more overlapping regional structures, which filled the vacuum, and which have competing and confusing responsibilities and democratic accountability (or lack of it).  There is for example the mismatch between LEP economic plans and City Deal funding pots, the result of a Whitehall turf war.

In few cases do LEPs have the resources or skilled staff to draw up real plans, instead we have wish lists composed to ringing up major employers asking what there plans are, even in the most optimistic circumstances.  Hence LEP job targets are rarely justified by regional economic models, so the models have to be tweeked, policy based evidence again.  LPAs then add the targets to their housing numbers which in some cases become hopelessly inflated like in Oxfordshire.

These targets often rely on assumptions on in-migration and inward investment which would be a fallacy of composition if every LEP applied them, not everywhere can compete with new land for an existing stock of employers to be moved around the board.  In many ways this is the flipside of LPAs underestimating housing need with policy based evidence.

7 thoughts on “Ministers – A Dozen Reasons Why Local Plans Take Geological Time

  1. “Local authorities working out their own housing need objectively is the equivalent of turkeys stuffing themselves for Christmas.”

    This is genius.

  2. CPRE call on all parties to develop better policies so we have:

    •the right housing in the right places
    •the right infrastructure for the right reasons
    •a beautiful countryside to sustain us all

    CPRE’s manifesto sets out our priorities for the next Government under these three themes.
    Download our manifesto for the 2015 General Election

  3. As always a wonderful read… I didn’t see any mention of the New Plan-Block on the Block; Neighbourhood Plans. Increasingly LPAs are putting out plans that devolve decisions to the neighbourhood plans and these in turn are not, as a whole, doing anything like local, much less strategic, planning. I assume inspector’s will give this the booting it’s due certainly not doing anything to get plans in place and delivered.

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