Soft planning is a new style of planning, nothing to do with its statutory status or otherwise. We have non statutory strategic plans in places like Leicestershire and Surrey and emerging statutory plans with a ‘soft’ stage in places like Oxfordshire., Northamptonshire (next month) and Greater Exteter. What all of these have in common is absolutely no sharp edges of housing numbers assigned to locations which might hurt a Nimby or upset a local politician. They are easy to agree as there is no need to set up a structure to make hard choices that cannot be agreed through unanimity. If you get housing numbers at all it is in an appendix stating need as a fact with a comment that this does not imply distribution. You might get a diagram showing growth locations, but only in the non statutory forms to get around SEA requirements.
Are they useful. Certainly more so than no strategic plan at all. And some like Leicestershire are quite good. They are harmless as a big soft ball and just as likely to break down the wall of opposition to real strategic plan of what goes where when. Despite being soft they are not popular, as we see in Oxforshire where the results of the consultation (which had a very limited response as it was not consulting on place specific policy options) you found a general opposition to ‘growth’ with a large majority of respondents objecting to almost anything said.
Thats the problem with soft planning, it makes the pain of the big hard ball of housing numbers even more painful. It simply engenders the public into thinking the planners and politicians are hiding something and discussing real options in secret – which they are of course.