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Unitary authorities best placed to harness planning reforms, says study

Words: Huw Morris

Proposals to reform England’s planning system point to a major reorganisation of local government to introduce more unitary authorities, according to a report.

The government is set to publish a devolution and local recovery white paper in the autumn, with ministers signalling they want more unitary councils. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study for the County Councils Networks (CCN) says proposals to introduce zones will reduce “the discretion of councils in approving individual planning applications”, alongside the scrapping of the duty to co-operate and introducing a new levy against which councils can borrow to fund infrastructure.

"These proposed changes, if enacted, point towards a system that will place much greater emphasis on the role of planning authorities in strategic place-shaping and housing enablement rather than focusing on scrutinising individual planning applications,” the report says.

“Zonal allocations by local authorities will require strategic planning at scale across a much wider geographical footprint, covering multiple housing market areas.” The opportunity to borrow against income for infrastructure will be “maximised when organisations stretch across areas of both low and high housing growth”, it adds. As for planning, “a single service could enable a place-based approach, joining up all assets and opportunities rather than working to multiple local and industrial plans”.

The study says abolishing 213 districts and replacing them with 25 unitary authorities could save £2.94 billion over five years. A single unitary would give communities a single unified voice to government, a clear point of contact for residents and businesses as well as a platform to maximise the benefits of strategic economic growth and housing policy, it claims. CCN chairman David Williams said that in his county of Hertfordshire there are 11 councils.

“That means there are 11 chief executives, 526 councillors, 10 planning teams so there is an awful lot of complexity and cost.” Amid speculation that the government is considering limiting each unitary authority to 600,000 people, the CCN warned ministers against setting “an arbitrary population threshold” that will “cap areas’ ambitions”, create confusion, costs and complexity while potentially delivering a “postcode lottery for local services and economic recovery”.

Evaluating the Importance of Scale in Proposals for Local Government Reorganisation is available here on the CCN website.