In an article for the ConservativeHome website published in December last year, planning minister Brandon Lewis highlighted that “four out of five councils have published a local plan, compared to less than a third when we came to power” in 2010.
To those with little understanding of the plan production process, these figures might sound impressive. But planning practitioners know that the number of plans published is not a particularly useful yardstick because publication comes very early in the plan-making process. An analysis by Planning this week paints a different picture to the minister’s ConservativeHome article (see Trackers).
It shows that fewer than a quarter of councils have in place a local plan that was adopted since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced – authorities whose plans are older than this cannot be confident that the documents comply with the framework – and that while the pace of local plan adoption increased last year, still only 33 plans were adopted in 2014.
A senior planning inspector has suggested that behind the scenes ministers are less than happy with the pace at which local plans are being delivered. Keith Holland, group manager of projects and initiatives at the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), told Planning’s local plan assessment conference in London earlier this month: “I think ministers are losing patience with planning. They wonder, ‘Why is it taking so long for local plans to be put in place?'”
There are a number of reasons for slow progress in local plan adoption, highlighted in a report published by the Communities and Local Government select committee before Christmas. These include resource constraints, a lack of political will, and the length of local plan documents themselves.
Another key factor cited for holding up progress, identified by the select committee, and underscored by a planning inspector’s findings last week, is the Localism Act 2011’s duty to cooperate, which requires local planning authorities to engage with neighbouring councils when addressing cross-boundary development issues, such as housing….
It seems clear that if ministers are frustrated by the progress of local plan production, here is an area where government action could help. One suggestion is that councils could be given incentives to cooperate, perhaps with certain grants linked to cooperation. But a quicker fix would be for the government to take a look again at its guidance, so that local authorities are left in no doubt as to what they need to do to meet the duty.
The only way to meet the duty is to do larger than local planning, joint strategic plans in many cases. This is not a quick fix and ideologically Pickles wont do it. He should turn the ‘big gun’ he threatens to use on anyone who mentions strategic planning onto the cause of the problem.