Is the Local Plan System Too Broken to Fix?

Most local plans in most places do a reasonable job in allocating for development in the short to medium terms (1 to 10 years).

Most local plans do a terrible job in meeting long terms needs, some even fall down on medium- and short-term needs given the lack of a 5-year supply and failure to update to the latest housing needs.

Hence even those authorities that have finally clawed their way to 5 years supplies and recently adopted plans are only likely to stay there with a continuous flow of permissions granted on non-allocated sites after a very few years. They survive by decisions but not through planning.

There are several reasons for this. 

Firstly, many authorities resistant to putting forward plans in any kind of hurry that meet need in full, as we have discussed on here many times. 

Secondly the land and environmentally constrained nature of some authorities (I’m not including Green Belt here). 

Thirdly the difficulty of many authorities to meet needs by themselves and the continued and increasing problems we see in authorities producing joint plans.  Just look at the South Essex Joint Strategic Plan – will we ever see a draft, its now four years late.  Pass me a hat and salt if it is ever published.

Finally, where long terms strategic sites are proposed the lack of support by government in supporting the infrastructure and means of land value capture to make them work.  North Essex being the prime example, now even more highlighted by the need to take additional housing overspill from London (around 40k a year) now the London Plan has been finalised.

We might well see safe bet de-risked plans.  These plans will meet their own needs only, and in larger unitaries like Shropshire and Wiltshire this may well be possible.  However, the sites chosen will be large urban extensions of the largest towns likely requiring new -road building, which in many cases will be resisted, or included as hybrid monstrosities of distributor roads serving as relief roads (as in Aylesbury Vale (as was) and Milton Keynes, which puts heavy traffic through the middle of rather than around communities), and without the large investment in transit, walking and cycling necessary to create no carbon communities.  The sites that do come forward are likely to be from call for sites for large scale single landowners, and without proactive delivery mechanisms these may be accepted even though they are on remote and car-only served sites.  What ‘strategic planning’ does take place is likely to be motherhood statement non-statutory plans, without housing numbers, as we see in Leicestershire.

So in the absence of a government interested in proactive spatial planning, and only interested in numbers and ‘good design’ however badly land uses are located the default planning will be decisions without planning, just bad planning.  Good local plans are too risky and too painful given a political climate unwilling to de-risk and share the pain. 

It is almost impossible now to make a political case for expensive plan making let alone expensive joint plan making.  The case studies of failure now outrank the case studies of success and the reasons for failure lie outside the control largely of the ‘good’ rule following and pro planning authorities and too much with those, like Stockport, East Devon, West Somerset and South Staffordshire, that refuse to play by the very weak rules.

Bad planning, bad sites, and worse masterplans will become the norm.

This will happen even with zoning as unless these underlying problems are fixed we will still see the majority of housing delivered through discretionary decisions – in this case spot zoning, zoning variances and discretionary design control.  Decisions without planning.

The case for zoning is that it enables good planning, it cannot stop bad planning.

This will not change until we see a fundamental institutional shift from government.  That good planning is a good thing, and a shift in terminology and process will not in its self be sufficient without a return to planning.

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