On Examining and Saving Strategic Plans

Planning Resource

The housing ministry has said it will consider whether a planning inspector’s recommendation that a group of Essex councils remove proposals for two garden communities totaling 34,000 homes from their emerging joint local plan “raises any questions for how large sites are examined in the future”.

The system of binding local plan examinations was forged at a time when plans had to conform to strategic plans where reports were advisory to the SoS.  So in many cases there were long delays when panels took against aspects of a strategy, such as the Eddington Report on the East of England plan, strategies always moved forward.  No-one envisaged or designed a system where plan would move backwards for years.

Similarly the introduction of binding inspectors reports in the 2004 acts was designed to prevent LPAssimply rejecting inspectors reports even where they were very critical.  However the later introduction of ‘soundness tests’ in regulations set high barriers, which many failed.  The intention in in parliament was for there to be a ‘presumption in favour’ of soundness.  The lawyers put paid to that as it was never reflected in statute or national policy.  Rightly so as it prevented poor, spatial plans (such as the original Stafford core strategy) getting through.

A difficult valence is needed.  It must be seen as transparent, independent and fair. All the values of PINS; but not be so hard that impossible barriers are set which lead to ‘no planning’.  For example cllrs in Braintree are now saying they may be forced to develop a non strategic local plan that simply disperses development to villages. How can that be more sustainable than one based on garden communities linked by a rapid transit solution with uncertain delivery?

A few basic principles:

  1. It should be rolling starting at the early stages of choice of strategic options.

The rolling examination has become the norm.  However it still begins very late in the process based on the principle that a plan should only be submitted once it is considered sound.  However by that point it is too late as key problems such as DTC and SEA fails occur from the very beginning of the process.  In some cases LPAs have relied on PAS advice which subsequent inspectors have disagreed with.  This seems to have happened when the communication between the LPA and the consultant has not included challenge from groups which later challenge the plan.    This is unacceptable.  This should be replaced by an open process of rolling continuous improvement and challenge initiated at the early critical stages of plan making.

2.  Utilise Panels

A few inspectors have been criticised for idiosyncratic decisions.  Sometimes fairly more often not.  Panels are now standard on larger examination (e.g. Oxford) and should be universal.  The extra cost pays for itself in not having to go back through stages.

3.  A More Open Process for Determining Options

Often plan making authorities are scared to death of consulting on strategic options for fear of whipping up opposition.  We often get a  smoke filled room process by leading groups only where the options emerges only at the last stage of preparation. often preceded by a beauty parade of options presented by developer consortiums.   As such plans are easy to oppose by opposition groups and even easier to throw out.

What is needed is an open, exploratory mutual gained based approach for determining the set of reasonable alternative options that will be tested via SEA.  There is only likely to be trust in such a system where the SEA itself is conducted independently.  This is the step that has been going most wrong and where most attention is needed on fixing.

4.  A revised standard system for OAN

The government is finally now acknowledging problems with its OAN system, which reallocates household growth from areas with weaker markets such as the Midlands and north of England to the South of England without any acknowledgement of how this relates to migration and employment growth.  In any event the system was broken with the latest household projections and households not forming because of lack of housing to form into, together with the huge uncertainties over international in migration and student numbers.  With a likely house price recession the system is shakier than ever.    In any event the system did not account for land constrained areas such as London and relied instead on the failed DTC mechanism.  So it simply perpetuated in different forms the cyclical logic of undershot housing numbers leading to low completions leading to low household formation rinse repeat.   What is more the whole system lacked transparency with a lack of an open portal bringing all the info together and displaying what the numbers are on a per authority basis.  Now is the perfect time for a refresh.  A new system should be based on a target level of housing consumption and target level of employment growth per region – based on a macroeconomic regional ‘levelling up’ model such as Ireland uses.  This should be based on long term trends of 25 years or more than short term demographic and economic jiggles.  The models should output regional and per authority numbers with regional groupings of authorities given a deadline to redistribute based on opportunities and constraints.  If they fail to do so the government should have a reserve power.

5.  A slimline proportionate approach to evidence

The days of inspectors asking 500 questions at the opening of EIAs has to end and has to end now.  An evidence base that fits into several skips does not lead to more accurate plans.  It is a fallacy.  This was the main subject of my lecture tour this year.  Planning and PINs is still weighed down by a traditional and discredited notion of planning rationality that more evidence is better.  It is not.  Gathering evidence has an information cost.  In nature creatures that spend too much time processing information and too little acting die.  Hence we evolve ‘heuristics’ simple methods of making decisions.  All the evidence shows these mechanisms are better not sub-optimal means of making decisions in many real world cases.  My approach has been to adopt a GIS based approach to data simplification and options evaluation that is suitable to the ‘big’ decisions that strategic plans have to make.  I.e. choosing strategic growth locations.

6.  New Mechanisms for Funding Regional Transport Infrastructure

Carbon free development patterns, including Garden Communities, wont work unless there are new regional networks such as BRT, given the capacity constraints of existing road and rail.   As the NIC notes this has no preexisting funding structure and is given too little national priority.  What is more, with a few hard won exceptions such as Oxfordshire, local authorities are not geared up to study or deliver sub-regional infrastructure.  Study and funding timelines are often well behind  plans, such as in Essex key road alignments being put in place after plans are agreed (or rejected) so what is the point.

7.  Collaborative Central /Local Arrangements

Is strategic planning a joint central/local government endeavor.  If it is central government should facilitate, if the latter it should  get out of the way.   We see long term problems with the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency.  It is not good enough to simply state that these should facilitate.  They are safeguarding central government policy objectives, and to facilitate housing the balance and trade off of policy objectives need to change.  A good example is the refusal of the government to fund upgrades to an M25 junction to facilitate a Garden Community in Tandridge.  One suspects the Highways Agency doesn’t like new communities on the M25, even if they are next to a railway. One thinks then where does the Highways Agency want new communities.  It has no view- it is not tasked to answer that question.  If Garden Communities and Local Plans are to get anywhere then they need to have a view.

8.  Stop Throwing in Problems Caused by Combined Authority Mayors 

Combined authority mayors were deliberately set up as an alternative source of power in areas with mainly labour local authorities.  Wherever it has been introduced teh split in power has been nothing but a source of confusion and delay, notably in Greater Cambridgeshire and the West Midlands, with the government being notably obstructive  in Greater Manchester and London favouring Boroughs of their own parties.  Furthermore if you want to see spectacularly complicated local plan governance arrangement look at those relating to SDSs of combined authorities.  A total dogs breakfast.  Abolish the distinction between SDSs and combined local plans and inyriduce simple joint boards everwhere.


West of England Backs Away from Joint Spatial Plan

It was supposed to be the model.

It doesn’t resolve the underlying problem of choice of strategic locations or lack of involvement of North Somerset in the combined authority/SDS.

Again if the government doesn’t make it easier for SDSs in terms of allocations/green belts (as per Greater Manchester) joint planning will fall by the wayside.

Somerset Gazette

South Gloucestershire Council has promised to start with a clean slate as it prepares to draw up a new blueprint for thousands of new homes in the district.

The local authority claims it has learned its lesson after a regional plan for 105,000 homes across the West of England was rejected by government officials last summer.

The failed joint spatial plan (JSP) was the brainchild of South Gloucestershire Council and neighbouring unitary authorities in Bristol, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset.

After years of costly cross-border collaboration, the four councils formally withdrew the joint spatial plan on April 7, and will pursue their own local plans with varying degrees of joint working at a regional level.

Campaigners and opposition councillors sought assurances about South Gloucestershire’s new local plan as the council’s ruling Conservative administration adopted a programme for developing one on April 27.

Colin Gardner from TRAPP’D (Thornbury Residents Against Poorly Planned Development) wanted to know that planners would “start from a blank sheet” and undertake “genuine, meaningful consultation” to avoid repeating “past mistakes”.

Liberal Democrat councillors asked whether a “more appropriate and realistic” target for housing numbers would be calculated or if South Gloucestershire would “again take more than its fair share of additional growth”.

They also sought confirmation that the previously identified “strategic development locations” (SDLs) would be dropped and asked if “broad locations” would be identified at a regional level.

Cabinet member for planning Steve Reade said: “The new local plan will learn from the previous JSP process that the council has now withdrawn from.

Council leader Toby Savage clarified that the council was “having to start with different numbers” because there was a new national standard method for calculating housing targets.

“The question is then can every authority meet its own need within its own boundaries and that is the unanswered question as we move forward through this process,” Cllr Savage said.

“I don’t think the conversations will be any easier this time round than last time round.”

South Gloucestershire will prepare a local plan and collaborate on a sub-regional “spatial development strategy” (SDS) for South Gloucestershire, Bristol and B&NES, cabinet papers show.

The SDS will be “evidence led, and undertaken in an open-minded way, that doesn’t start with the answer”, according to cabinet papers.

In his written submission to the virtual cabinet meeting, Mr Gardner said TRAPP’D would be “watching like a hawk” for any sign to the contrary.

The newly adopted South Gloucestershire Local Plan Delivery Programme 2020-2023 states: “The four authorities and West of England Combined Authority (WECA) remain committed to working together on the best way forward on strategic planning policies for the sub-region to positively address its strategic planning needs including the Climate Emergency.

“It is also important to note this process would be different to the joint working under the JSP.

“Whereas previously the approach was a shared approach to address shared issues, now there are likely to be two separate processes – an SDS and a North Somerset local plan.”

The details for the SDS will be presented in a report to WECA Committee on June 19.

When adopted the SDS and new South Gloucestershire local plan will form the up-to-date development plan for South Gloucestershire

Is Strategic Planning Too Hard?

Where are the strategic planning success stories?

In the aftermath of the age of the localism bill a lack of strategic planning was seen as the sine qua non solution to lack of housing and lack of joined up thinking.

You don’t hear that very much today.  There is lots and lost of strategic planning – very little of it is found sound.  Even bigger problem is that of ‘failure to launch’ strategic plans years in perpetration which never see the light of day and which may never see the light of day.  There are manifold technical reasons for this failure, from DTC fails (predictable) to options chosen failing to be found sound.  In some recent cases the big strategic choices were left to the next round of joint strategic planning, such as St Albans and South Bucks, but inspectors had to judge the plans in front of them.  However very few cases of joint planning, with a few notable exceptions such as South West Devon, South Worcestershire etc. have got through and where they have they have carried forward strategies hatched a decade ago, sometimes in the last round of structure plans.

This failure of strategic planning was the subject of my lecture tour when I was last visiting England a couple of months ago and my forthcoming book.  Basically the planning profession has not risen to the challenge of developing new methodologies for strategic planning and has gotten bogged down.  Groups of planners sit in rooms, having spent decades hating each other and are expected to work together like a cutting edge start up, when in most cases they simply have adopted working methods and techniques from small scale local plans.  Predictably it hasn’t worked out well.

The problem has shifted.  It is not lack of strategic planning.  Strategic planning is broken.  It needs to be remade.

West Tey and Braintree Garden Communities Thrown Out at Examination

The ministry required the inspectoprs report to be sent to them first before publication.  Though everyone knows the result.  The falling away of the Uttlesford local plan hit both as the rapid transit solution fell away.  This raises questions over whether North Essex was an appropriate unit for strategic planning.  Now only Harlow and Maldon are progressing local plans, South Essex is going nowhere fast.  Is an Essex Strategic Plan now the only way ahead?  And how do we have a more collaborative process so that plans cannot reach an advanced stage and then be knocked back? A system that takes 5 or more years to examine and process local plans cannot be a good one.

Essex Gazette

PLANS for 43,000 new homes in three new towns in north Essex have been ruled “unsound” by a planning inspector.

Two of the three new towns, totalling 34,000 homes, cannot proceed, inspector Roger Clews has ruled.

However, the third, a 9,000 home development east of Colchester, could still go ahead.

Mr Clews has said the councils behind the North Essex Garden Communities – Colchester, Tendring and Braintree – should remove the West Tey and west of Braintree garden communities from the joint section of their Local Plan to proceed.

He said: “Even if the A120 dualling scheme has a good prospect of being delivered as part of the programme, not to provide the necessary public transport connections from these two garden communities would directly conflict advice the transport system needs to be balanced in favour of sustainable transport modes.

“I find that the proposed Colchester/Braintree borders and West of Braintree garden communities are not justified or deliverable.

“Consequently, the plan’s spatial strategy, and thus the plan itself as submitted, are unsound.”

However, Mr Clews said the financial viability of the third garden community, off the A134 near Greenstead and Wivenhoe, was “very strong”.

He has recommended two ways forward for the authorities – either withdraw the plan in its entirety, or consult on it again with two of the garden communities removed.

Mark Cory, leader of Colchester Council, said: “This decision is obviously a mixed bag for Colchester and north Essex as a whole and one that we will need to consider carefully both individually and collectively.

“This administration believes it is better to plan new developments to deliver infrastructure first, as the councils have been trying to do.

“Leaving it to developers to provide the necessary physical and social infrastructure is not good enough. The inspector does back our approach and has outlined a clear way ahead in his letter.”

Graham Butland, leader of Braintree Council, said: “Clearly the decision of the Inspector is a huge disappointment and one that will adversely impact on the district for years to come.

“I am proud that, together with Colchester and Tendring councils, we brought forward imaginative and far-sighted plans for meeting the housing needs of our communities both now and in the future.

“These plans would have fundamentally shifted the balance of decision making from developers to local communities.

“Unfortunately, the Inspector’s decision means that we will have to consider whether additional sites around our existing towns and villages for both the additional housing and for gypsy and traveller sites will now be required

“This is something we wished to avoid but unfortunately the concept of further urban sprawl is now a real threat.”

The authorities say they “remain committed to the principles that made the garden communities so beneficial to the community”.

Neil Stock OBE, Leader of Tendring Council, said: “We welcome the scrutiny given by the Inspector to our proposals, and while it is a shame that he does not find all of the proposed garden communities viable at this time it is good that he recognises our high standards and approves the garden community method.

A Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The Government is working hand-in-hand with local communities to deliver much-needed new homes across the country.

“We remain committed to supporting new garden communities and helping these schemes to get off the ground.”

Andy Street Weighs in on Coventry Green Belt – Told to ‘Talk Less and Build More’

Coventry Telegraph

Calls have been made for a development blueprint for the city to be urgently reviewed over fears that green belt land could be lost to homes that do not need to be built.

The message comes from West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who has made a “Green Belt Pledge” and wrote to Coventry City Council outlining his concerns. Mr Street is seeking re-election to the post later this year.

The Local Plan is a document which sets out how many homes should be built across the city and where.

But Mr Street says that it’s based on flawed population numbers.

Cllr George Duggins, leader of Coventry City Council, disagrees.

In a reply to Mr Street, he said the Local Plan is “robust” with “a clear mechanism built in for review” and that an early review is not needed.

Liam Byrne, Labour’s candidate for the West Midlands Mayor role, argued the homes needed can be built on brownfield sites.

Mr Street has set out an “eight-point plan” to protect open spaces and the green belt.

He added: “We are seeing significant parts of the region’s Green Belt being targeted for development, and my eight-point plan aims to make sure everything is done to protect our open spaces.

“Much-loved areas like Eastern Green in Coventry are being targeted by developers who want to build thousands of new homes, and the flawed Local Plan is allowing them to get away with it.

“I would rather see new family homes built on cleaned-up brownfield sites in the Black Country, or new apartments built in Birmingham City Centre, than diggers tearing apart our green belt.

“My ‘Green Belt Pledge’ lets the people of the Coventry know that the Mayor will be on their side when it comes to fighting unwanted proposals from developers.”

He added: “These are based on a consistent, national methodology and must be the basis for preparing local plans. Projections are issued every two years and continue to project significant growth for Coventry. The next set of growth projections are due to be issued this summer.”

In terms of having a Local Plan, Cllr Duggins said that, without one, there could be a “free for all” which could actually lead to the loss of more green belt, as the city would be “exposed to rogue planning proposals”.

He concluded: “Even if the government agrees to a reduction in their agreed figures of 42,400 any reduction will come from the numbers other neighbouring local authorities have agreed on our behalf and not from Coventry’s figures as our figures are 24,000.

 “I consider the current Coventry Local Plan to be robust and with a clear mechanism built in for review I therefore do not consider it necessary or appropriate at this time to call for an early review.”

Mr Byrne challenged Mr Street to “talk less and build more”.He added: “Building homes people can actually afford has collapsed under our Tory Mayor. Everyone knows the homes we need for the foreseeable future can be built on brownfield sites. So what the Mayor needs to do is simple: talk less and build more.”