A handful of councils have so far announced that they are delaying work on their local plans due in whole or in part to the government's white paper proposals for radical changes to the system. The moves have prompted worries about other authorities following suit leading to a slowdown in plan preparation and housing delivery.
At the end of last month, Bromsgrove Council in Worcestershire became the first council to announce that it is suspending work on its local plan because of uncertainty sparked by proposals in the government's planning white paper to shake up the plan-making system. The white paper proposes dramatic changes to the current system of local plans, envisaging them being replaced with new-style blueprints that are more streamlined and take a zonal approach to allocating land. The midlands district council said it was postponing publication of local plan review consultation material until greater certainty exists on future plan making.
In addition to Bromsgrove, Winchester City Council recently agreed that the authority should become a pilot for the new-style local plans envisaged in the white paper, putting the next stage of its consultation process into abeyance. Alongside these two, two other councils have announced delays to their local plan timetables and cited the white paper as a factor, in addition to other issues.
The MHCLG is clearly concerned that mosre authorities are tempted to follow in their footsteps by pausing work on their local plans. Joanna Averley, recently appointed chief planner, has twice warned councils that they should not down tools on local plan preparation in response to the white paper's proposals.
However, the planning white paper is just one of several factors that are leading to delays in plan-making, say practitioners. One of them is another major planning change, the introduction of a revised version of the standard method for calculating local housing need that is apparently causing some councils to pause plan production. Others, observers say, include the resourcing headaches caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and local government reorganisation that is affecting several counties.
But Philip Barnes, land and planning director at housebuilder Barratt Homes, has little doubt that one factor is uncertainty surrounding the future of the plan making system sparked by the white paper. He said: "Despite the government chief planner's advice that local authorities should continue preparing local plans, there is an increasing trend of plans being stalled since the publication of the planning white paper and the revised standard method housing numbers. It seems that many are preferring to wait to see how the planning white paper proposals settle before finalising their housing requirement."
Matthew Spry, senior director at planning consultancy Lichfields, said he understood why councils will be tempted to hit the pause button on plan making if they take the white paper at face value. The document said the first of the new style plans will be in place before the end of the current Parliament in late 2024. "Plan making is very costly and resources are tight so local authorities will think carefully about whether investing significant amounts in a plan, which will be superseded very quickly, is value for money," he said.
Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, said: "It's understandable that a lot are taking a pause to think about it. It's a responsible approach to make sure you are getting it right - you don't want to spend millions of pounds getting evidence and when the minute you've finished it, it has to be updated. A lot will continue to develop their plans but it will inevitably impact on timetables."
However, she warned: "Local authorities simply downing tools will put themselves in a vulnerable position. There's a huge amount that they could be doing to think long term about their vision of place so they are ready to move as quickly as possible.
Richard Crawley, programme manager at the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service, said: "The scale of the changes proposed in the white paper combines with more general concerns over finances to create a genuine dilemma for councils. No one wants to commission work that might turn out to be wasted or have an extremely short shelf-life, and it is entirely sensible that people take stock of their position and think about what to do next."
But in some instances, councils will be looking for excuses to delay development that is locally unpopular, said David Bainbridge, a planning director at consultancy Savills: "Where authorities have delayed it's because it's politically inconvenient."
Past experience suggests that previous overhauls of the planning system have resulted in a hiatus. Rob Foers, planning lead at local authority body the District Councils Network (DCN) and principal planning officer at Hinckley and Bosworth Council said: "There has to be an acknowledgement that the government proposals for reform have created uncertainty in the planning system. We have seen this before with previous reforms to plan-making." Changes to planning legislation, policy and guidance may lead to new evidence being required or plans being redrafted, said the DCN's recently submitted white paper response.
Alex Roberts, director of the strategic planning research unit at consultancy DLP Planning, agreed that delay is a risk, recalling the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) less than a decade ago. "When the NPPF came in, a lot of planners stopped and waited to see what happened. It ended up with lots of planning appeals and we will probably end up in that space again if we don't do anything about it. Any change inevitably causes delay and you need to do things to stop that."
However, the government's proposed timetable for rolling out its planning reforms should be treated with a pinch of salt, many observers suggested. To get a plan in place for the end of 2024, based on the white paper's assumption that the new style blueprints will take 30 months to prepare, means that work would have to begin in early 2022. The next Queen's Speech, which would be the government's first chance to turn the white paper into legislation, is not expected until next spring (2021) at the earliest.
Bainbridge was sceptical that a planning bill will get through in one sitting of Parliament, given the controversy it is likely to spark amongst the government's own backbench MPs. Riddell said the 2024 target for new plans to be in place is "very, very ambitious".
"The reality is that the white paper won't be implemented for that ambitious timescale," said Spry. He added that even once any planning bill has been passed, changes to the NPPF and other secondary legislation will have to be implemented before councils can begin on the new style local plans.
Tim Burden, a director at consultancy Turley, said it could easily be five years until the post-white paper local plans are in place. As a result, councils cannot count on the new system being place for some time, and so, said Spry, there is "a clear role for a local plan to be prepared now and not wait".
He also warned: "The implications for housing delivery will be quite serious, particularly if the gap isn't filled by speculative development that local authorities don't want to see come forward." Spry called for the government to clarify the timetable for implementing the white paper and confirm that its December 2023 deadline for adopting plans remains in place: "It's got to take that step now to avoid the plan led system sinking into the mud."
Four development plans where local authorities have cited the planning white paper changes when announcing delays
Bromsgrove District Council
At the end of last month (Oct), Bromsgrove Council said it will not publish any consultation material in relation to its local plan review “until more certainty exists on what the future plan making system will be”. A new timetable for plan production will be published “as soon as it is possible to do so”, the council said. It added that officers were still working on the elements of the plan which they can progress so that the council can react “quickly and positively” when the new plan-making processes are known.
South Worcestershire Development Plan - Wychavon District Council, Malvern Hills District Council and Worcester City Council
Last month, the three authorities involved in the South Worcestershire Development Plan (SWDP), announced that a review of the joint strategy is likely to be delayed by over a year. It had previously been intended that the draft document would be submitted for examination in "early 2021" but a revised timetable said this will now occur in March 2022. A document considered by the authorities said Covid-19 had been the main reason for the delays to date but added that the government's white paper changes could delay the strategy even further.
Warrington Borough Council
Also last month, Warrington Borough Council said it was pausing work on its local plan until next summer in response to the white paper changes along with the revised standard housing need method and the impact of Covid-19. Leader of the Labour-run council Russ Bowden said the two sets of planning changes "mean that we are currently in a period of uncertainty", adding that it would be "inappropriate to move ahead with the submission of our current plan to the planning inspector at this time”.
Winchester City Council:
Winchester Council, which is at the issues and options stage of its local plan process, has recently agreed to put itself forward as a pilot authority for the new-style planning system. But as a result, it will be suspending the next stage of its consultation process.