|LOCAL PLAN EXPERT GROUP|
Achieving a sound Local Plan remains a challenge for local authorities across the country, despite the Framework being in place for 4 years. Without an up-to-date plan in place development cannot be truly plan-led which is a core planning principle of the Framework and as such this is a key issue to be addressed.
On 16 March the Local Plans Expert Group, set up to advise Government on how to improve the speed and quality of Local Plan preparation, published a number of recommendations aimed at addressing the challenges for forward plan making in England.
Key points of interest include:
Streamlining the Local Plan Process
The Group recommends that the amount of evidence required to inform the preparation of new local plans should be precisely defined in order to simplify the whole process, which should have a maximum timeframe of 2 years from the first consultation to final adoption. A review of how financial incentives could stimulate authorities to achieve more efficient plan making is also recommended to encourage this. The removal of the ability to have ‘saved policies’ carried over from the last plan could also serve to encourage a quicker process.
The local plan should also only cover strategic issues, leaving other documents such as Site Allocations or Neighbourhood Plans to provide further detail.
The plan-making environment should have more certainty and stability, with key assumptions fixed for the duration of the process, such as housing need and with less frequent changes to national policy.
Identifying and Meeting Housing Need
The tests of soundness should be revised to emphasise that housing needs must be met, or if a local authority cannot meet the need, they must demonstrate how it will be met elsewhere.
Where authorities fail to reach agreement on meeting and distributing housing needs by March 2017, the Government could take and use powers to direct preparation of a Local Plan for the relevant Housing Market Area (HMA) within a prescribed timetable.
A standardised methodology for calculating 5 year housing land supply is recommended, the outcome of which should be presented in an Annual Monitoring Report (AMR) that is then independently Examined so that it becomes definitive until the following year's is published. This is seen as having the key benefit of challenges to housing land supply being raised soon after a plan is adopted, and repeated at different planning appeals.
In the event that a 5 year supply cannot be demonstrated in the AMR then the authority should have a supply of land ready to be released, which should avoid (or at least reduce the likelihood of) planning by appeal.
Empowering Local Communities
By ensuring that local plans focus on more strategic issues, greater emphasis would be placed on Neighbourhood Plans and other similar local level policy documents which would provide additional details of how strategic policies will translate on the ground.
This should mean that local issues are brought to the fore and that communities may feel more engaged in the planning process on issues that matter most to them, such as the provision of infrastructure and the location of new homes and employment.
Speeding up and simplifying the process by which new local plans are adopted can only be welcomed, given the clear difficulties that persist since the Framework was introduced and indeed in the years before that. A combination of financial measures and the removal of the ability for old style policies to be saved should serve as significant incentives to achieve these aims.
The introduction of a simplified approach to calculating 5 year housing supply is important and sensible, but arguably of greatest significance is the recommendation that the assessments should be independently Examined and remain definitive until updated the following year. This is an excellent idea in principle as it should lead to significant time savings in terms of planning appeals. The challenge will be whether authorities have the ability to publish such data annually, as assuming the data is to be subject to the same level of critical analysis as is devoted to housing land supply at public inquiries, there will inevitably be significant time and resource implications in meeting this obligation.
Absent a 5 year supply it is entirely logical that there should be pools of reserved land available which can be freed up to fill the shortfall, which provides further certainty on housing delivery and a continuous supply.
A point of concern is the local plan being restricted to cover strategic issues with other matters considered through Neighbourhood Plans or other documents. This places a weighty responsibility on communities preparing Neighbourhood Plans, often on limited resources and without the technical expertise expected of forward planners. There is a risk that important decisions, central to the delivery of the local plan, could be delayed which would run counter to the Government's growth agenda.
It is important to remember that at this stage these are only recommendations. We await with interest the Government's response to the report to see which measures are carried forward into legislation or through amendments to existing Regulations.
Click link below to view Local Plans Report to Government
If you have any queries or require further information, please get in touch.
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