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LDF L&DG: Sound Plans Need Good Evidence

Date: 17/1/2005

Sound plans need good evidence

The pilot authorities met again on 17 January 2005.   This is the second of two bulletins based on what came out of that meeting. It focuses on issues around:

  • the concept of soundness
  • the challenges of drafting LDF documents
  • practice pointers 

The first bulletin from 17 January covers the importance of keeping sight of the original ambitions for the new system; the move towards a consensus model of planning; and the idea of unified sustainability appraisal frameworks.

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 examination into soundness requires a new mindset
  • Writing LDD policies requires a new mindset
  • Experience of the new system is growing  

The examination into soundness requires a new mindset

The concept of soundness - A feature of the old development plan system was that once the plan was put on deposit, the procedure thereafter was entirely to do with considering objections and whether the plan should be changed to take on board changes sought by objectors.   That process reinforced and institutionalised the "conflict model" of planning, wherein the function of the local inquiry was to determine who should prevail: the planning authority or the objector..   The system did not ask whether the plan was a good one, which successfully addressed the needs and issues of the area; only whether it should change to accommodate particular interests.

The new system changes fundamentally the process of validation of plans, by moving from an inquiry into objections to an examination into the soundness of the plan.   The new process of examination is essentially about whether it is a good plan.   If it is, it should come through substantially unscathed; if not, it is likely to be found out by the examination process.

 

The tests of soundness - Soundness is effectively defined by paragraph 4.24 of PPS 12, which sets out the nine tests of soundness and states that a development plan document will be sound if it meets them.   The function of the examination is primarily to assess the submitted document against these nine tests.   While individuals and organisations may wish to see the plan changed to accommodate their interests or concerns, the examination will not ask whether the plan should change to accommodate what is sought.   Rather, it will ask whether the plan is sound in relation to each of the tests, and if not how it should be changed to render it so.

The tests can be paraphrased as relating to -

  • compliance with the local development scheme
  • compliance with the statement of community involvement or minimum requirements of the regulations
  • the sustainability appraisal of the plan and its policies
  • that it is a spatial plan and compliant with higher order planning strategy, including national policy (arguably two tests here)
  • the regard it has to the community strategy
  • the coherence of the plan and its consistency with other development plan documents including neighbours' plans where relevant
  • the appropriateness of the strategies, policies and allocations in the light of alternatives and their founding on robust evidence
  • the mechanisms for implementation and monitoring
  • flexibility

Implications of the examination - The Planning Inspectorate published draft guidance on how the examination will operate and soundness will be tested.   The key message is that the Inspector is required to assess the plan against each of the nine tests whether or not there are objections which refer to them.   It is anticipated that essentially the Inspector will ask himself or herself, and the other parties to the examination a series of questions, including -

  • how effectively does the plan take forward its defined objectives?
  • are there any serious gaps in coverage, including areas one would have expected to be covered in a spatial plan for the area?
  • how well does the adopted strategy perform in relation to the sustainability appraisal?
  • does the strategy reflect the findings of community engagement?
  • have all valid options been properly considered?
  • is it clear who will implement each policy or proposal, and how?
  • generally, does the evidence support the strategy and proposals?

Clearly, the fact that the plan will be examined to assess whether it is sound means that it will be important for it to be well-founded in evidence.   This does not mean that every policy or proposal will need to be supported by detailed evidence - the effort expended should be proportional to the significance of the issue.   Planning authorities will wish to concentrate their evidence-gathering resources on those issues which will be pivotal in determining whether the plan meets the tests of soundness, and of course those matters which are likely to be most contentious.

All parties to the examination will need to appreciate that the sustainability appraisal and the results of community engagement as important in their own right as key evidence.   Where a plan can be shown to follow faithfully the options which perform best in sustainability appraisal, and to reflect the concerns and needs identified by community engagement, then provided that it is also supported by robust technical studies it will be very difficult for other interests to argue successfully for significant changes.

The converse is also true, of course.   If the technical studies do not stand critical examination, the strategy flies in the face of the results of the authority's own sustainability appraisal, or key community concerns are not major determinants of strategy; then the plan is likely to be found wanting, and either changed materially by the Inspector or (if that is not practicable) referred back to the planning authority with recommendations as to the approach it should take to resolve the problem.

There are important issues for elected members here.   They will need to -

  • provide the resources to enable good quality evidence to be obtained
  • appreciate the central importance of sustainability appraisal in decision-making on the plan
  • take on board an approach to community engagement which seeks to maximise consensus   

Elected members will need to take time and care over setting the objectives of the plan, so that if, for instance they consider a particular issue to be of overriding importance, that should be made explicit.   Then, if their preferred strategy is shown not to perform as well as some other options in sustainability appraisal, the authority can show that it does reflect their defined overriding priority.   Of course, this will only be plausible if community engagement has provided clear evidence that the same matter is also of overriding concern to the community at large.   And members must accept that they cannot wish the evidence away, or bend it to suit their preferences, because that will be liable to exposure at the examination.

Handling representations - Planning authorities should address in good time the requirement for a database to record and manage representations on the plan.   The database will need to be able to deal with and differentiate between representations at both preferred options and submission stage, and also counter-representations submitted in response to publicity for representations received.  

When reports are made to the cabinet (or other member meetings which consider the emerging plan), they should be geared to the tests of soundness, with representations reported under the relevant tests.   A schedule can be prepared which sets out all the representations by test of soundness, and how it is recommended that the authority should respond.   That schedule can then be developed to provide a summary of how the authority has responded to all the representations, as a foundation document for the examination.

It should be noted that while the planning authority will have to be able to show that it has considered and responded to all representations, it does not need to provide a separate response to each.

The examination timetable - The Planning Inspectorate has indicated that it is prepared to agree a timetable with the planning authority which will take the plan from submission to the Secretary of State to receipt of the Inspector's report within a year (although it is noted that some Government Offices have pressed for a longer timescale to be included in development plan schemes).   Meeting such a timescale will be dependent on speedy turnaround of the planning authority's responses to representations; and appreciation on the part of all players that the process is an examination of soundness and not an inquiry into objections.   This will in turn require that representations are expressed in terms of soundness, the planning authority responds to them similarly, and evidence is geared properly to the soundness tests.

Achievement of such a timetable will depend on the planning authority fully grasping the concept of front-loading.  It will need to expect and gear itself up for its main effort in relation to representations to be made at the preferred options stage.   Where representations made at that stage are not taken on board by the planning authority, the persons concerned will have to be repeat them at submission stage to enjoy the right to be considered by the Inspector.   But there will be no need to report repeated representations in detail to members for them to decide how to respond to them, because they will have already done so earlier.   This means that reporting at submission stage should focus on new representations which were not previously made.

It can be expected that in the first round of examinations there will be problems caused by organisations and individuals not appreciating the importance of making representations at preferred options stage, and similarly not grasping the need to express representations in terms of soundness.   Planning authorities will need to work hard to get across the messages about the nature of the examination, particularly the pitfalls attendant on leaving it until the submission stage to make representations.

"Late objections" - If representations are raised for the first time at submission stage, that could create real difficulties for those who make them.   This is because the Inspector will have difficulties drawing fair conclusions about those representations.   The Inspector and other parties to the inquiry will have available the final report of sustainability appraisal, which will set out how the preferred options perform compared to other options considered by the planning authority, including options raised in representations at preferred options stage consultation.   Similarly, they will receive (or have access to) a report setting out the results of community engagement, including the responses to options identified at preferred options stage.   This evidence will address options against the same criteria, and enable consistent comparisons to be made between them.

It follows that to be able to properly and fairly consider a late representation, the Inspector ought to have the same evidence in relation to the proposed change as is already available for options considered by the authority at preferred options stage.   Without that evidence, the Inspector will not feel that a safe comparison can be made of the merits of the proposed change compared to other options, and will therefore be unlikely to support the change sought.

It will be possible for the "objector" to provide evidence of their view of how the change they seek performs in relation to sustainability appraisal, but they will need to show that they have carefully followed the authority's appraisal framework.   The Inspector may be expected to be cautious about accepting such evidence, since it will be debateable whether it accurately follows the planning authority's own practice in application of the sustainability framework.

Even if that is done, there will remain a potentially more difficult hurdle, in that there will have been no community engagement covering the proposed change.   Again, in the absence of such evidence, the Inspector will not be able to fairly compare the proposed change to other options which have been aired during community engagement, and will therefore find it difficult to substantiate supporting such a change.

The conduct of the examination - It is clear that the proceedings will be similar to an examination in public of a structure plan, with the evidence taken as read and the focus on round table sessions with the Inspector proactively directing the discussion.   The programme will be broadly built around the tests of soundness, adjusted to enable planning of appearances.   It is suggested that, through the programme officer, the planning authority should be proactive in taking a view on which session(s) are most likely to be relevant to particular participants, and   inviting them to those sessions.

Writing LDD policies requires a new mindset

Horsham DC is the first of the pilot authorities to produce preferred options documents for its core strategy and allocations development plan documents.   They found the change from the familiar practice of writing policies and proposals for old-style local plans challenging, and had to develop new ways of thinking to reflect the different nature and function of documents in the new system.   In particular they found they had to tackle four new issues simultaneously -

  • how to produce documents whose function is to provide only part of the overall policy coverage, compared to local plans which were comprehensive in scope.   This involved distinguishing higher level strategy for inclusion in the core strategy, and presenting allocations without the development control policies which have commonly accompanied them in a local plan, while including policy material considered essential to make them coherent and support their implementation
  • how to make judgements about what kind of policy material should go into the current documents (particularly the core strategy), what the core strategy should say about broad locations for development (as distinct from site allocations), and what should be left for inclusion in future LDDs
  • how to set out the options which have been considered and why the preferred options are selected, including judgements about just what options need to be covered and in how much detail
  • how to present spatial policies, in terms of their overall scope, the matters to be covered, their expression, and policy topics which would not have been appropriate to a local plan

Horsham were keen to avoid starting from assumptions about what would have been included in a local plan and then trying to adapt it to fit the new system.   Their approach was to try take on board what the core strategy in particular was intended to do, and to focus on issues and what needs to be done about them.   They feel that a key part of their experience has been to see a document emerge which they feel looks much more about the real place and issues of Horsham than they felt was achieved with previous local plans.

The Horsham preferred options core strategy can be seen on their website at -

http://www.horsham.gov.uk/strategic_planning/main/4082_4206.asp  

HEALTH WARNING - The Horsham documents are interesting as an early attempt at LDF document preparation, but that should not be taken as commending them as good practice.

Experience of the new system is growing

 The project has now been running for five months.   All have undergone valuable learning from their own experience and from the discussions at project meetings.   This section sets out some of the experience and learning of the individual authorities.

Local development schemes and pre-planning - Recent months have seen changes in the advice given by Government Offices as understanding of the new system has grown among practitioners.   In particular, where authorities have a recent UDP or local plan they are no longer urged in all cases to bring forward an early core strategy.   It appears to depend upon whether the strategic framework remains valid and how soon changes are likely in the regional or sub-regional strategy.   Where the old style plan is seen as up-to-date and still broadly sound in its strategic context, there is a greater willingness to see the old-style plan as serving for some time, so that energies and resources can be concentrated on other priorities such as implementation planning.   This is the experience of New Forest DC .   There is also an acceptance that in other cases there are likely to be current development plan policies which it would be sensible to save for more than the automatic three year period, until it is timely to replace them as part of review or roll forward of policy.

There were concerns that Government Offices appeared to be advising authorities not to produce, say, an allocations development plan document until the core strategy was completed.   The valid message is that if documents are prepared alongside each other, then if the Inspector decides to change the core strategy that may render parts of a submitted allocations DPD inconsistent with the core strategy as changed.   It is therefore sensible to know the outcome of the core strategy before committing to the submission of another LDD, so that it can be revised if need be.   However, Hertfordshire have now agreed that they will produce site allocations for waste in tandem with the core strategy in order to meet time scale targets for waste planning, and both Hambleton and Horsham are preparing allocation DPDs alongside the core strategy.  

Coventry and Doncaster encountered some concerns at the Government Office about their plans for topic-based DPDs, which appear to have arisen from paragraph 2.4 of PPS12 which refers to local development frameworks containing a core strategy, site specific allocations of land, and area action plans (where needed).   Coventry have taken the view that there are sufficient references in PPS12 and "Creating Local Development Frameworks" to support their approach and have continued accordingly.

Hertfordshire found it beneficial to work closely with the Government Office in developing the local development scheme, both to ensure its eventual acceptability and to establish shared understanding for when future issues arise.   They also developed a detailed timetable for production of their waste LDF geared to cabinet and other meeting dates, and to avoid periods such as the run up to local elections when reporting would not be appropriate   This was helpful in setting a workable timetable and highlighting well in advance when special meetings may be required.   They also used the process as part of identifying risks of potential delay in the programme.

Barking and Dagenham were in the situation that other sections of the authority were proposing LDDs without appreciating the implications, especially the effect of the statutory processes.   They therefore developed internal guidance to assist colleagues in judging whether an LDD was likely to be appropriate by taking them through a series of questions.

Resources - Hambleton have an ambitious LDF programme.   To support its delivery they have -

  • commissioned consultants to carry out three key technical studies
  • recruited an additional planner on a three year term contract
  • engaged a consultation specialist on a year contract   to develop the consultation programme and consultation material, undertake consultation and assist in evaluating responses
  • engaged consultants to develop the sustainability appraisal framework and carry out independent appraisal of the core strategy and development policies DPDs, and validate in-house appraisal of an allocations DPD

In the latter case the division of work between in-house staff and the consultants takes account of the need for staff to understand the processes and own the outcomes of appraisal, reinforce capacity, provide independent appraisal of the key core strategy DPD and take advantage of local knowledge.

Both Coventry and Hertfordshire held a series of members' seminars to explain how the new system differs from the old.   In addition to helping members engage with the issues raised by the new system, in Hertfordshire's case this was influential in securing support for an additional member of staff to assist in the additional work.

Sustainability appraisal Barking and Dagenham and three adjoining East London Boroughs are working together to produce a joint waste LDF (see meeting notes 8/11/04) .   They have agreed to keep the sustainability appraisal objectives simple and relatively few, so that they can work to common objectives.   Apart from making the process of sustainability appraisal more manageable, it is felt that this will make it easier to reach consensus.

In relation to the Borough's own LDF, Barking and Dagenham have made a corporate decision that there will be a central conduit for baseline data in the corporate strategy section, through which all departments can provide and extract the information they require.   However, for the present the need to sustain progress has made it necessary to prepare a separate baseline to serve the production of the LDF scoping report, but with a view to integration with the corporate process as it comes on stream.

Community engagement and the statement of community involvement - Barking and Dagenham planners are keen to prepare their SCI as a corporate document to be used across the Council and not just in relation to planning.   Groundwork East London have been engaged to lead the production of the SCI.   A corporate steering group is being set up to steer the work, and Groundwork will meet with officers from across the authority as part of their scoping work.   They hope that these measures will ensure corporate buy-in to a document which will be relevant to all departments.

Hertfordshire are finding it difficult to engage with the local strategic partnerships in the county.   This is partly to do with the fact that there are eleven local partnerships, with significant differences in their organisation and functions, and sometimes long gaps between meetings.   They are also finding problems in managing attitudes towards the county council, with lack of understanding of the requirements of the new system leading to some suspicions.

Formal council resolutions - Ipswich have identified the importance of careful framing of recommendations to the cabinet and council to ensure both that they provide sufficient flexibility to cover necessary detailed changes, and that they confer the requisite delegated authority to bring eg the local development scheme into effect.

 

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