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Reports advocate stronger planning role for county councils

Words: Laura Edgar
Homes / iStock_000020788340

Two reports launched today (20 June) at the County Councils Network’s (CCN) housing conference have concluded that county councils should have a larger role in planning in order to solve the nation’s housing affordability crisis.

County Councils & Strategic Planning: A Review of Current and Emerging Practice, by Catriona Riddell Associates, notes that the Duty to Cooperate has “largely failed” to deliver effective strategic planning since regional planning was scrapped in 2010, when all planning functions were transferred to district and borough councils in two-tier areas.

The mechanism “has been a major blockage on local plan preparation” and as a result, housing delivery has “failed to keep up with demand,” says the report. Further to this, the approach to spatial planning and setting infrastructure priorities is disjointed.

Current proposals to guarantee a more robust approach to strategic planning through the statement of common ground and proposed ‘test of soundness’ examination are to be welcomed, but they are “unlikely to be sufficient to address significant planning and infrastructure challenges”, it adds.

The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving the current and proposed approach to strategic planning.

  • A place-based approach to strategic planning should be taken, aligning spatial, infrastructure and economic priorities more effectively through statutory joint arrangements. This should be in the form of statutory joint strategic plans, statutory MCA strategic development strategies or statutory strategic infrastructure frameworks within which individual local plans can be prepared. A statement of common ground should set out what option is being used.
  • Further changes to the statutory joint arrangements currently allowed under Section 29 of the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act should be considered by the government to allow both county councils and unitary authorities to be equal partners in a S29 committee where a S28 joint plan is being prepared.
  • The county council role in planning, regardless of whether on a statutory basis or not, should be acknowledged by the government in any funding decisions to support local plan-making. The government should also explore additional opportunities to build the essential strategic planning capacity and skills needed to deliver effective strategic planning.

Catriona Riddell, director of Catriona Riddell Associates, said: “The government has recognised the need to have stronger links between building the new homes the country needs and providing the right infrastructure to ensure that development is sustainable.

“This research demonstrates clearly that we need to move away from planning by numbers to place-based strategic planning and that, in two-tier areas, the counties have a significant role to play alongside the local planning authorities.”

Clearly defined role needed for county councils

Building for the Future: The Role of County Councils in Meeting Housing Need, by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) for the CCN, aims to showcase the work county councils and country unitary authorities are doing on their own and in partnership to deliver high-quality homes and communities.

According to a survey that forms part of the report, 62 per cent of the 21 county council and county unitary authorities that responded (of a total of 36) categorise their affordable housing need as severe. Of the respondents, 29 per cent described it as moderate and 9 per cent as limited.

The report recommends:

  • The government should ensure that county councils and county unitary authorities are given a clearly defined role in the forthcoming affordable housing green paper, providing clear leadership to encourage county councillors and their authorities to think boldly about the role that they can play in helping to solve the housing crisis over the long term.
  • The government should provide a clearly defined role for county councils in the strategic planning process. County councils should be formal signatories in a Statement of Common Ground (SoCG), especially concerning matters relating to housing, infrastructure and economic growth. The government should indicate in guidance that an SoCG should normally be made over a county geography, giving district councils the capacity to plan for homes over a larger area and the county the ability to plan for infrastructure and service provision for the entire area that it is responsible for.
  • The government should make capacity funding available to enhance the skills and boost the capacity within county councils and county unitary authorities to enable them to innovate and expand their roles in delivering new housing of all tenures.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said: “The study reveals that counties understand that to realise the true value of land they must do more than just maximise sales receipts. They are aware that they must understand the potential for long-term income streams, have a stake in the quality of the development and secure wider social and economic benefits. Ultimately the report demonstrates that counties are an important part of the solution to the national housing crisis.”

Philip Atkins, CCN spokesman for housing, planning and infrastructure, said: “Today’s research reveals counties have strong concerns over the ability of young people to afford their own homes, which stretches the length and breadth of the country, from Cornwall to Cumbria.

“Whilst counties are taking matters into their own hands, their ambitions remain shackled by planning reforms that do not go far enough, especially on planning on a strategic scale. These reports today set out a series of recommendations to enable counties to do more to deliver the homes for people of all ages the country desperately needs; properties of the right tenures and in the right places, backed by the necessary infrastructure to ensure that we build sustainable communities, not just simply houses.”

Speaking to The Planner, Victoria Hills MRTPI, chief executive at the RTPI, said: “Effective strategic planning should be locally designed, encompass the full range of policies - not just housing - and be driven by strong incentives from central government. We need to see strategic planning everywhere and it may not always be possible to wait for legislation to enable this. We agree with the CCN that where there are minor legislative and bureaucratic bottlenecks, the government should remove these as soon as possible, especially where this can be done without primary legislation. There is no time to waste.”

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