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Local plan report ‘will provide planners with greater certainty’

Words: Laura Edgar
New towns / iStock

RTPI president Phil Williams says a recently published report into local plans will “provide planners with greater certainty” and offers “bold” solutions to the problems facing plan-making in England.

The report was compiled by the Local Plans Expert Group, which was set up by communities secretary Greg Clark and housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis in September 2015. The group, made up of a panel of eight, was asked to consider how the local plan-making process can be simplified with the aim of reducing the time it takes local authorities to get plans in place. 

The report states that the group found that “less than a third of the country” has an up-to-date local plan and it estimates that that “less than half of the country’s housing needs are currently being provided for in local plans”.

The call of evidence revealed to the group the extent of the difficulties, and they are “even more severe that we had anticipated”, the group says. “Substantial reform is necessary”.

The report states that “almost unanimous consensus” suggests that the principal difficulties in making plans include:

  • Agreeing housing needs;

  • Difficulties with the duty to cooperate, such as the distribution of unmet housing needs;

  • A lack of political will and commitment;

  • A lack of clarity on key issues, such as the green belt;

  • A lack of guidance, support and resources;

  • There is no definitive guidance on the way in which to prepare Strategic Housing Market Assessments (SHMA), leading to significant disagreement and uncertainty over housing numbers

Williams said the report “powerfully describes” the problems facing plan-making in England and it “offers bold solutions” to overcome them as well as explaining why they are needed.

In response, the report makes 47 recommendations, aimed at establishing Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) and then turning that into local plan requirements, working across boundaries, devolved powers and incentives for timely plan preparation.

These include:

  • The government should commission a statistical assessment of Housing Market Assessment boundaries, based on the last census, and to strengthen guidance in the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG), which should applied in future local plans. Boundaries should be adjusted based on local authority boundaries.

  • Longer-term consideration by the government to achieve coordination between economic and housing planning boundaries so that voluntary strategic planning for housing, infrastructure and economic growth is more effective.

  • Significant reductions in elements of the local plan evidence base.

  • Revisions to the soundness tests of the NPPF and NPPG to emphasise the expectation that needs should be met, with authorities who do not plan to meet their own needs identifying how they expect those needs to be satisfied elsewhere.

  • The government should lay out clear conditions to any successful devolution bid, requiring a commitment to plan positively to meet objective housing needs and a commitment to produce a plan for the combined area. Additionally, it recommends that individual authorities within a combined authority area should receive sign off from the combined authority that their emerging plan addresses the duty to cooperate before their plan can progress.

  • A significantly shorter, standardised approach to calculating housing needs.

  • The government should review the role of financial incentives to stimulate efficient and effective plan-making.

Williams said: “The conclusions of the report will provide planners with greater certainty, for example, by allowing for judgements to be made on simpler evidence bases, and being subject to more flexible tests of soundness by the Inspectorate. We are also very pleased that the group has acknowledged the role that central government can play by taking steps to incentivise the development of growth points to ensure that housing needs are met.”

The RTPI has conducted an analysis of the report, which can be found on its website.

The full list of the recommendations can be found in the report (pdf).

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