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LDF L&DG: Front loading de-mystified

Date: 8/8/2005

The LDF learning and dissemination project is working with ten pilot authorities to capture what they learn from the preparation of their LDF and disseminate that learning to practitioners. The reports of the learning from meetings of the pilot authorities are to be found on the Society's website .

The pilot authorities met on 9 August 2005, and this bulletin sets out what came out of that meeting. The meeting focused on three areas:

  • the concept of front loading and what it means in practice
  • the importance of effective challenge at the key issues stage
  • recent learning from the experience of th epilot authorities, drawn from the reports of visits by project team members during the spring and early summer 

HEALTH WARNING - The material here sets out the broad conclusions which came out of discussion with the pilot authorities, and represents an early view of what seems to be sensible practice. It is not presented as good practice at this time, because the test of that will only come when it has been applied in reality and can be seen to have worked.

  • the concept of front loading
  • the importance of effective challenge
  • learning by the pilot authorities

The concept of front loading

A rational decision-making process A fundamental feature of the new system is that key decisions should be taken early in the preparation of an LDD, and become progressively more firm as it progresses through the formal stages. The label "front loading" is not particularly helpful, and has contributed to some confusion as to what is meant. The essential point about front loading is that decisions on development plans will follow the same process as for any other significant project. The normal and rational approach is to start with the objective (or objectives) of the project, then ask what are the main decisions which need to be made and the realistic options available within known constraints, and then evaluate them in developing the overall strategy or principles. Only when this process has been worked through does one normally begin to flesh out the detail, whether the project is to design a building, produce a Council strategy, or plan a school timetable.

By contrast it can be argued that the public process of decision-making within the "old" development plan system was actually rather artificial.. While residents and stakeholders may have been engaged in discussion about the issues and possible strategy, they did not normally see the emerging plan until the publication of the deposit draft. They were then confronted with a document which set out very detailed policies and land allocations, and within which the choices as to strategy were either implicit or dealt with only in the reasoned justification. They then needed to address the overall strategy and the fine detail at the same time, which is not the way they normally approach decision-making in their own work or private life. It is no wonder that despite assurances by the planners that representations could be made on any aspect of the plan, some respondents simply did not believed it, but contended that in reality the planning authority made up its mind on the main issues long ago, and was really only open to representations on detailed points. In all honesty there must be some truth to this. When officers and elected members have decided the underlying strategy and then spent a great deal of time and effort to work out the detail, it is very difficult for them to remain open to the possibility that the very principles behind the plan are wrong. Moreover, to make a change in strategy at such a late stage in the process could cause the whole plan to unravel, making it necessary to spend a lot of time and resources in re-working it, which indeed did sometimes happen as a result of extensive proposed modifications.

The new planning system assists in the decision making process by ensuring that the core strategy becomes the key spatial document for the planning authority, so that matters of strategic importance can be decided first. Spatial policies that will have a strategic effect on the future of the area and its sustainable development for the next 10-15 years can therefore be considered by the community and become the framework for more detailed decisions.

Clearly, all the players in the planning system have to develop their understanding of the new process, and may find the transition from the old demanding and even confusing in the short term. But it is to be hoped that soon they will appreciate that the process is logical and gives them better opportunities to influence the direction of a plan before it sets firm. The more successfully planners can communicate the changes to others in the authority and to the community and stakeholders, and explain that the new decision process actually reflects the way other important decisions are made, the sooner people will be able to successfully engage.

Linkages with SEA and sustainability appraisal - In designing the new system, the Government was conscious of the desirability of incorporating the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (SEA) into the procedures, so as to avoid the need for LDDs to be put through a separate SEA testing regime and to be compatible with the decision processes for strategy preparation. This was achieved by reflecting the stages of SEA in the stages of LDD preparation. The purpose of SEA is that major public strategies should be soundly based in terms of their environmental implications. It seeks to ensure that both decision-makers and citizens are properly informed about the effects of the choices to be made, and to provide for people interested in or concerned by the emerging strategy to be able to make timely representations and have them considered. The Government decided that rather then restrict the appraisal process to environmental issues, it would provide for the full range of sustainability considerations to be covered, and thereby make sustainable development both an objective of plan-making and an embedded part of the decision-making process.

Thus we have a merger of a thinking about how planning strategy decisions should be made with the sustainability appraisal process. It goes without saying that sustainability appraisal must not be seen as separate from decision-making, but an integral part of it. Such integration begins at the very start of the plan-making process. The first step in sustainability appraisal is to carry out scoping, to identify and consult upon the main decisions to be made and the options within them which are to be appraised. This is reflected in the formal procedure for development plan documents, where the first formal stage is "Regulation 25 consultation", involving the community on issues and options.

Considering options - The consideration of options is central to the new system. It should be seen as a logical part of the decision-making process, which requires that the key decisions are identified and addressed early in the process - and of course making decisions is about making choices. This reflects the reality of plan-making as a process of managing change, where decisions may be needed due to changes in the environment within which the local authority operates, community values, policies, the national and regional context, local needs, or the understanding of issues.

The identification of options is not arcane, but a practical process which asks what decisions need to be made, and what real choices are available. However, because the new system requires spatial plans, there needs to be wider thinking than previously about the potential decisions to be addressed. Some decisions are likely be straight choices between two or more courses of action and not affect other decisions, but by the nature of planning many of the key decisions will be about interrelated choices which taken together add up to alternative strategies.

A range of approaches can be taken to identifying policy choices, including -

  • SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)
  • review of trends and evidence of recent change
  • examination of different scenarios
  • examining known links between policies, such as the demand for new or additional community services as a result of population growth in an area
  • considering conflicts between objectives and aspirations
  • identifying synergies and incompatibilities
  • consideration of thresholds which may trigger the need for action
  • reflecting on possible changes in social expectations and values

Once the decisions which are likely to need to be made are identified, the choices within each can be clarified (though in practice the decisions and options will often be identified at the same time). Options may be exposed by thinking about -

  • whether trends will be allowed to continue or there should be a planning intervention
  • available locations and the related opportunities and constraints
  • the priority to be given to different land uses and activities in areas where they are in competition
  • the different views and values of different groups in society or interest, including the ambitions of developers compared to community aspirations
  • the possible need to avoid or mitigate foreseen sustainability issues
  • how the strategy might be made robust against potential changes, and provide flexibility to adjust
  • the value or otherwise of committing policy decisions at one level (eg the core strategy) so as to provide certainty at a lower level, which in other words means to reduce the choices subsequently available at the lower level.

The importance of effective challenge

In the identification of options it will be important to be quite challenging so as to expose the true issues and choices, including choices which may not be very palatable to the planning authority. This is important for a number of reasons -

  • the wider scope of spatial planning makes it necessary to consider a correspondingly wider range of possible solutions
  • The new system is based on evidence, and all relevant facts need to be considered. Considering realistic options will help define what information is required and avoid finding gaps in the argument later
  • early engagement with communities, agencies, developers and other stakeholders is intended to ensure that all reasonable options are identified and considered, and specifically to ensure that they are subjected to sustainability appraisal to provide the evidence for decision-makers as to how they perform
  • the possible solutions are no longer restricted to what can be delivered by the planning authority under development control powers, but should take into account the capabilities of other departments of the local authority and partner organisations
  • it can identify alternatives likely to be put forward by objectors and ensure that they are properly evaluated and covered by sustainability appraisal. This point will be returned to later

A well-planned process of challenge at the issues and options stage can be of wider value to the local authority as a vehicle for corporate strategy review, and in doing so can make a significant contribution to comprehensive performance assessment. It can also assist partners by helping the development of the community strategy. Many local strategic partnerships recognise the need to improve their community strategy, whether to give greater clarity to overall strategy, or to improve the focus on delivery, or to be better able to measure their effectiveness. Preparation of the core strategy alongside a review of the community strategy can combine the planners' skills with the knowledge of partners to produce a community strategy which is a more coherent strategy in itself and provides a workable spatial local strategic context for the LDF; and enable the LDF to more effectively address the range of issues implicit in spatial planning.

The essence of challenge is of course to be questioning. Some questions to consider include -

  • Is orthodoxy working? Are current policies effective as interventions, or is it possible that other approaches could be more effective?
  • Can someone else provide a better solution from within their powers and capabilities (and are they willing /able to do so?)
  • What are the assumptions behind current policy or practice, and are they still sound?
  • What are the opportunities, and can problems be turned around into opportunities?
  • Would a longer timeframe offer better solutions than incrementalism, or additional options worthy of evaluation?
  • Do communities support current policy, and if not, do their reasons point to alternative approaches which could achieve the same ends in a more acceptable way?
  • Do agencies' programmes support and reinforce each other, or cancel each other out? Could changes be made which would make their combined effect more successful?
  • Is there disagreement within the authority or the local strategic partnership as to the best course of action in relation to a particular issue? Where there is, the evaluation of the alternative approaches combined with sustainability appraisal will provide evidence to help in decision-making.

It is possible that colleagues, members, or partners may be uneasy about the process of challenge, because of concerns that it could call into question cherished policies and programmes. It will be important to foresee this possibility, and consider how best to introduce the ideas. This is as much a matter for personal political skills as professional practice. It may be that there is greater openness to challenge among the corporate leadership of the authority, who should see it as part of the self-challenge which is central to effective strategic management. It may be necessary to take the time to explain that the new system enables any person or organisation to put forward its view of issues or options at the outset of the process, and that it will therefore be better for the authority to do so itself in an aware and structured way rather than have to respond to others. By this means the authority will continue to be in the lead.

There is an issue for heads of service here. It may be difficult for relatively junior staff to be seen to challenge Council policy, especially where senior management and elected members have not been prepared in advance to expect this. In such cases the head of service will need to ensure that early presentations and reports on the new system make the point clearly that the consideration of challenging options is an essential feature, and will be integral to the work on the LDF. It may be necessary to agree with senior management some ground rules as to how options which challenge current Council policy will be brought forward and presented.

Looking ahead to the examination of the development plan document, it should {therefore} be kept in mind that the Inspector will look to the planning authority to have appraised all reasonable options, so that there will be evidence before the examination prepared on a consistent basis as to how they perform in sustainability appraisal terms compared to other options. The Inspector will also want to know that such options have been covered by the participation on the preferred options ("Regulation 26" stage), so that evidence is available about the reaction of stakeholders and other interests. Where the planning authority has not appraised options despite representations, the Inspector may decide that they are reasonable runners and the information ought to be provided. In such a case, he or she may ask the planning authority to carry out an appraisal and consult on such options so as to bring them to the same standard of evidence as those which have been appraised. This would presumably require an adjournment while the evidence is provided, and could cause dislocation to the examination programme.

Identifying reasonable options to be appraised - Early work by the pilot authorities suggests that there are often more realistic alternatives that would have been apparent under the constraints of the old system, especially when the considerations outlined in [section] above are followed. It is important for the alternatives to be realistic, and informed by the early consultations with the community and the scoping of sustainability appraisal. The Core Strategy will normally be the place where strategic decisions are taken affecting the future of the area.

  • Deciding what are reasonable options to consider may be problematical in relation to allocations DPDs which will need to consider alternative sites, particularly during the transitional period to the new system and before core strategies have been fully tested . It is a matter for judgement, but it is suggested that a site ought to be considered where -
  • it is recognised by the planning authority as being among the choices they need to consider,
  • higher level strategy in the RSS or a still-current structure plan can be said to give a degree of encouragement to a strategic option which could include the site
  • it is anticipated that the landowner or a potential developer will press for the site to be included, so the planning authority needs to evaluate it against others so that the decision process and the examination will be informed by a consistent body of evidence produced by the LPA
  • for other reasons it appears prudent to evaluate a site which though in conflict with current planning policy could become a runner if policy were to change

Such judgements may be particularly difficult in rural and urban fringe areas where arguably every field could be put forward as a possible development site. In such cases, it will be essential to have a clear-minded procedure for deciding which classes of sites will be appraised and which will not. It is suggested that judgements are made about the hardness of current policy constraints and whether consideration might be given to adjusting them. Thus sites on the urban perimeter currently covered by Green Belt policy might be appraised if it is anticipated that there will be a case for at least considering changes in Green Belt boundaries as part of a strategy alternative. Conversely, one would expect to reject from consideration isolated sites in the countryside which are unrelated to any town or village. The judgements made, and the reasons for them, should be a recorded.

It may also be possible in the sustainability appraisal of the core strategy to consider options for classes of sites, and, where that process shows them to perform very poorly, to use that evidence in deciding which individual sites to appraise in a subsequent allocations DPD. Decisions on individual sites in the land allocation DPD will be easier when there is a clear evidential basis (including both sustainability appraisal and the community involvement requirements) for making a judgement as to whether it is reasonable to pursue the option in the preparation of that DPD.

The situation is likely to differ depending on the timing of the allocations DPD relative to the core strategy. If the core strategy has been adopted prior to the formulation stages of the allocations DPD, and in particular before consultation on the preferred options, it will be proper for sites to be considered in relation to conformity with the core strategy. Then, where a site is clearly in conflict with the core strategy, the planning authority will be justified in declining to consider it further or to appraise it as part of sustainability appraisal (though it will still have to be consulted on as a rejected alternative at preferred options stage). A word of caution here is that the planning authority will need to consider carefully whether a coherent argument might be advanced that in fact a site is consistent with the core strategy, in which case, if this appears a possibility, it may be wise to appraise it. Much will depend on the quality and clarity of policy in the Core Strategy.

On the other hand, where an allocations DPD is being prepared alongside the core strategy, or allocations are to be included in the core strategy (because it is inherently of strategic importance that the matter is dealt with by a specific land allocation at this level), it will not always be viable to reject sites from consideration because they conflict with the emerging core strategy, for the reason that the strategy could still change. In such cases it is suggested the planning authority would need to appraise all reasonable option sites, but of course make it clear in the preferred options consultation that certain of them are in clear conflict with the emerging core strategy. Again, clarity on the strategic policies being considered in the core strategy will be very important.

Learning by the pilot authorities

As part of the project, team members in the capacity of "reporters" have visited all the pilot authorities to discuss and probe what they have learnt to date which has not been previously covered in dissemination material. Reviewing what they found, it became apparent that there were some experiences which were common to several authorities, together with some encountered by individual authorities.

Common Issues

Wider ownership of the LDF - several participants indicated that notwithstanding their efforts, senior officers and members do not have a sufficiently good understanding of the relevance and potential corporate contribution of the LDF (Barking and Dagenham, Colchester. Doncaster, Hillingdon, New Forest). At the most basic level this can mean that internal decision-making timescales are a barrier to expeditious progress (Barking and Dagenham, Doncaster). The issue of lack of corporate buy-in has also come through as a strong message at the recent Planning Advisory Service regional workshops. POS Enterprises has been commissioned by the Planning Advisory Service to develop a toolkit to assist heads of service in successfully communicating the significance of the new LDF system, the need for corporate priority and support, and the potential value to the authority of harnessing the LDF process and tying it in with other corporate activity.

Collaboration with the local strategic partnership and community strategy review - The intention that the LDF should be a delivery vehicle for the community strategy is greatly helped where the same department is responsible for both, as at Hambleton and Horsham. Although the functions are in different departments, New Forest are planning to review the community strategy alongside the production of the LDF core strategy, which will offer benefits of integration and rationalisation. Horsham have a review of the community strategy programmed for autumn 2005, and in terms of consultation it is planned to work largely off the findings of LDF community engagement, a potential example of good practice in integration and economy.

Doncaster have good relations with the staff who support the LDF, but aspirations of working with the community strategy team on a parallel process of development of the community strategy were not achieved due to practical difficulties in gaining compromise on working timescales.

Coventry 's local strategic partnership is keen to be involved, and its processes have reached the stage where partners want a more strategic approach. The LSP has theme group leaders and advisers and has invited planners to be on each of the theme groups, which meet monthly. The LSP is not yet involved in core strategy work since plans are embryonic on the approach to be taken. The LSP has links with universities, and has set up a community research and evaluation service. The Council is discussing involving them in work towards the production of the LDF, in particular on work on perceptions.

In contrast, the planning policy Team at Hillingdon has found limited scope to develop strong linkages to other Borough strategies, which has led to some informal concerns as to whether these strategies should have been screened for SEA purposes.

Pause for reflection - Coventry were originally expecting to move readily from the recently adopted UDP into the core strategy, but now feel a new approach is needed, with alternative visions of the city. Nevertheless a substantial body of policy direction does exist.

Hertfordshire indicated an intention to have a brief pause and review in the autumn to consider what has been done in the light of improved knowledge and understanding of the new system. That will address whether anything else should be done or the planned approach adjusted as a consequence. Ipswich intend to consider whether there is scope for some "back-fixing" to strengthen the identification of spatial choices both in terms of LDF decision-making and as an aspect of sustainability appraisal.

Colchester are re-considering whether to continue with current intentions set out in the LDS to prepare supplementary planning documents for regeneration areas, or whether area action plans would be more effective instruments in some cases. This will consider the potential benefits of AAPs in terms of possible use of statutory powers, weight in development control and the additional certainty which would be provided for investors, compared to the relative speed of producing SPD.

Use of consultants - Several of the participating authorities are using consultants for aspects of their LDF work. Hambleton set detailed briefs for consultancy commissions and an interview is used to ensure the proposed methodology is fully understood. Colleagues in other departments act as client managers for jointly-commissioned studies. Once a consultant is appointed close liaison is maintained. The approach to selection of consultants is described as seeking cutting-edge people who understand the ambitions of the new system and have relevant experience. The appointment of consultants is managed by the LDF steering group.

Two novel uses of consultants by Hambleton are interesting. A consultant was engaged to produce the first draft core strategy, working closely with the in-house team. The reason for this approach was to draw on particular expertise in spatial planning, and enable in-house staff to focus on content rather than the task of drafting the document. Another consultant has been brought in for a year to plan and manage different processes of engagement for the several DPDs, working off a SCI which was developed internally. The consultant will organise events, write articles, and generally facilitate engagement.

Hertfordshire engaged consultants to deal with much of the work on sustainability appraisal, which has helped immensely in resource terms. They are conscious of the need for the in house team to consider how best to maintain sufficient knowledge of both the methodology and content, so as to use it effectively in considering options and selecting the preferred strategy; and subsequently in explaining the influence SA has had on strategy at the examination.

The in-house team at Horsham carried out scoping and the consultation upon it, which was fed into the issues and options consultation. Consultants were engaged to carry out an independent validation of the scoping and base data work, and their recommendations were incorporated into the appraisal framework. The use of consultants for scrutiny of in-house work is continuing. An officer has now been appointed within the authority who could give independent review.

Hillingdon have carried out sustainability appraisal internally, with a member of the team employed specifically in this role. Because the core strategy was driven forward early in the process there is some need to "retro-fit" to fully merge them.

Doncaster have prepared the scoping report for sustainability appraisal concurrently with the appraisal of core strategy options. One consultancy was used for scoping and another for appraisal, and they are also working with consultants to increase in-house capacity. They are also collaborating with colleagues from the local strategic partnership, whose chair participated in the appraisal workshop meetings.

Learning of Individual Authorities

Role of the LDF - At Barking and Dagenham, large scale change is planned, much of which is currently being driven by other means/external agencies. Accordingly, consideration has been given to what the LDF can do which would not otherwise happen. The following functions have been identified -

  • showing how the Borough works and the elements work together
  • articulating Council corporate vision and objectives for the Borough and how they relate to each other
  • addressing how the extensive new development will relate to/benefit existing areas, and how the impacts on residents can be managed
  • tackling social and physical infrastructure needs and the needs of the Borough as a whole, eg for open space. Funding source is the key issue here
  • coordinating how regeneration initiatives fit together, looking to optimise outcomes and rationalise activity taking place on a range of initiatives in different parts of the organisation
  • giving local people a voice in the future of their area

A further potential role for the LDF process came out of the Barking and Dagenham site visit, which is to provide a challenge to current policy, and ask whether it still represents the best solution. Barking town centre offers relatively weak facilities, yet is one of the most accessible locations by public transport in London. Extensive areas of housing adjoining the centre are due for redevelopment under regeneration plans, with the current strategy being strongly housing-led. It was identified that one thing the LDF might do is to challenge the current strategy, to ask whether it remains soundly-based, or whether the opportunity should be promoted to secure substantial new retail investment and improvement in the centre.

Similarly, public transport considerations mean that the current development strategy for Barking Riverside will see development working progressively towards the river. There is an alternative of using early riverside frontage development to create a new image for the area, and make it more likely that a good social mix will be achieved and reduce the likelihood of an over-representation of social housing. This also might fruitfully be challenged through the LDF process.

Corporate vision as a foundation - Colchester has an established strong corporate and partnership vision for the future of the town as a major regional centre, with economic and population growth seen as integral to that vision. This will provide a ready foundation for the LDF vision.

Corporate priority for the LDF - Hambleton feel they were quick to see the positive attributes of the new system, and to tie it in with community planning. Corporate commitment has been crucial. The Director is a planner and a full member of the Management Team, and early on shared information on the new system with his Director colleagues, seeing the Green Paper as offering a way to tackle the identified need for a better strategic framework for the community plan, and a key means of delivering the community plan objectives. It is helpful that the head of planning also covers community planning.

Since the initial development of the community plan, officer away days have considered how to further develop policy structures, resulting in the decision to rebuild the corporate plan and service plans around the community plan themes. Thus the community plan is at the core of corporate strategy.

When the officers told elected members that the LDF was important and needed to be properly resourced, they were pre-disposed to agree. it is now an explicit corporate priority. There is a tradition of setting up funds for major initiatives, and this was agreed for the LDF with the support of the Director of Resources.

Involving colleagues - Coventry had an officer meeting in April with a corporate working group, sustainability and regeneration teams which identified the main factors impacting on the future of the city and related information needs.

Community engagement - At Horsham, c ommunity engagement produced a good response to issues consultation, and it is felt that working closely with communities over a period of time has built up awareness and recognition of needs. Preferred options consultation was less effective in terms of the scale of response. This was notwithstanding initiatives such as writing directly to people living adjoining proposed sites, and holding local drop-in sessions to enable people to see and react to specific sites and the issues they raise.

It was considered that conventional consultation did not get enough response in relation to issues and options. It was felt that at preferred options stage a much more focused approach was needed, with tailored engagement sessions and questions. While engagement needs to ask specific questions, it was also considered important to give people the opportunity to make their own comments. When people were asked specifically what change they would seek there were some good, considered responses.

Working to a demanding timetable - Hambleton have identified the following consequences of their approach -

  • the need to provide challenge for emerging consultants' reports, to ensure they are sound and staff attain a good understanding and ownership of the conclusions
  • it puts a lot of emphasis on project management skills, including specific issues of consultant management
  • to a degree, there is more pressure on planners to expeditiously make key judgements about strategy

Monitoring - Hillingdon are working with two other western London Boroughs on monitoring in preparation for their Annual Monitoring Reports. However they have had problems in obtaining advice, and are finding it difficult to set up the monitoring machinery for the spatial policies because it is hard to establish at the outset which organisation will be responsible for monitoring and applying corrective action.

 

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