David Evans, POS President 2014/15, provides his latest blog:
This has been a challenging and uncertain period for hard pressed policy teams around the country as they strive to achieve adoption of a sound local plan for their areas. Getting a local plan in place is vital if local councils are to determine where development takes place and to prevent speculative development. National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that the local plan is the starting point for decision making on planning applications. However the same document sets out some policies which make the task almost impossible leading to a presumption in favour of sustainable development with the resultant rash of speculative proposals and planning appeals.
It was therefore pleasing that the problem has been picked up in the Communities and Local Government Committee report on the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework. Published immediately before Christmas the report pulls no punches. The Committee found that just 21% of LPAs had adopted plans since NPPF was published and only four of the largest 20 authorities in England had done so.
The Committee examined the reasons why this has occurred. The first cause they identified was a reduction in resources. By coincidence the National Audit Office published information just before Christmas on the financial sustainability of local authorities. This showed that between 2010/11 and 2014/15 the greatest reductions in budget had fallen on planning and development services - the very services vital to the delivery of economic growth and housing. The Committee urged Councils to ensure resources are channelled into plan making and development management. Furthermore they urged all councils to put in place strategies to promote the development of planning skills and retain experienced staff.
The Committee went on to hear evidence about the binary nature of the plan making process where no weight was given to the plan until after examination when it might be found unsound. Many of you will have heard me refer to the process as a game of snakes and ladders where there are no ladders, just snakes. The Committee recommended that the Government consult on the option of the partial examination of local plans allowing for example the scale of the housing requirement and its broad distribution to be examined at an early stage. This ties in well with the proposals of the Planning Officers Society and others such as the District Councils Network (DCN) of the LGA. The Committee expressed their concern at the caution of the Planning Inspectorate to embrace this change.
The Duty to Cooperate was also considered. The Committee noted that in many areas this simply wasn't working. Some authorities were refusing to work with their neighbours. The Committee considered that alongside consulting on partial examinations the Government should also consult on incentivising authorities that cooperate and penalising those that fail to do so. The difference that planning delivery grant made to performance in determining planning applications gives an indication of how successful this could be especially given the financial climate local authorities find themselves in.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are trying to make the best of an imperfect system when the answer is clearly some form of larger than local planning. But given were we are it is essential that Government listens to the views of the Committee and takes this matter forward. With this in mind I was recently invited to represent POS at a meeting with DCLG officers, the Inspectorate and the DCN to discuss our proposals to improve the system. The views of DCN and POS chimed well together and I believe there is a way forward. A further meeting is to be held but I do not expect any change until after the election. Hard pressed LPAs need some help. It is vital that our colleagues in Government respond positively to the Committees proposals and make evolutionary changes to the system to help us get plans in place more quickly and efficiently so that we can deliver the growth and homes the country needs in the right place and at the right time.
David Evans, President 2014/15