Heeding local evidence

Planning officers and councillors need to realise that there is no grand strategy waiting in the wings and turn their focus to delivering much-needed development.

Standstill: councils must kick-start plans and decisions instead of waiting for guidance that will never come
Standstill: councils must kick-start plans and decisions instead of waiting for guidance that will never come

England's planning system is in paralysis because councils are waiting for the government to tell them what to do now there are no regional targets.

Councillors think that communities secretary Eric Pickles is preparing an overarching document and dare not move until they have seen it. Their constituents believe that green fields are safe and housing numbers were a Labour plot against rural England.

In the meantime, planning offices are being eyed for cuts, consultancies are laying people off, the construction industry is stagnant when it could be leading economic recovery, the property press is full of people bleating that the government should provide new guidance quickly and real people in real households are being denied affordable homes.

Well, I have news for you. No guidance is being prepared, because none is needed. We already know what we have to know. The secretary of state, ministers and their chief planner have been explicit on what localism means for making plans and determining applications.

It is not the government's place to tell us what to do or how to do it. We have to work it out for ourselves.

When Pickles revoked regional spatial strategies (RSSs) in July, he also made it clear that "it will be important for planning authorities to carry on delivering local development frameworks and making decisions on applications".

He guessed that this would throw up questions, so he got his chief planner to provide answers in a circular letter (see panel).

There is a great deal of information and policy in this. Inspectors say that emerging development plan documents (DPDs) are a material consideration, as is the evidence base for adopted and emerging DPDs.

Indeed, we have never had so much information about the places we make plans for, all of it presented as sound and much of it produced independently.

Because councils have this evidence in place, there is no reason not to prepare and adopt plans. The evidence base tells them what they need to plan for. Regional targets were only an interpretation of demographic information that remains a material consideration.

Strategic housing market assessments are still required. In most cases, these show a greater need than RSS targets anyway.

In the present situation there is a real temptation to get rid of all big and controversial proposals, downscale development requirements and make plans more attractive to the vociferous minority. But how do you get past all that evidence telling you what the needs really are?

In reality, you can only review if circumstances have changed and new evidence is likely to point to a different outcome. In the meantime, you have to make decisions on existing evidence. If you don't, developers will use it against you and the secretary of state will have no basis to interfere.

We have requirements and needs, a duty to make plans and an obligation to provide sites. The longer this hiatus lasts the more councils will fail to provide a proper land supply, opening themselves up to planning by appeal, and the greater the homes backlog will be. This brinksmanship can only be strung out for so long before house builders get desperate.

So there you have it. The government has passed the responsibility to make plans and determine applications to local planning authorities. They have all the information they need on what to plan for, where and when to plan it and how to deal with the applications that will deliver it.

They can set their own targets, but the formal process and parameters are just the same as they were pre-revocation. So what's the hold-up?

We all thought that Pickles was shooting from the hip and leaving us in the lurch. In fact, he is just waiting for us to wake up to what localism really means. This liberation to make planning decisions locally carries with it the responsibility to plan properly for everyone - those in need as well as those who have already - and in a timely fashion.

The new government was clear before the election. We have a housing crisis, the forecast number of houses required is accepted and they should be delivered at a faster rate.

If I were a developer, I would get those appeals ready now. If I were a chief planning officer, I would tell my councillors to get real about their new responsibilities and stop trying to hide behind the Pickles mirage.

- Lawrence Revill is managing director of David Lock Associates. The views expressed are his own. He was assisted by associate Arwel Owen.


- In determining applications, planning authorities must continue to have regard to the development plan and other material considerations, including national policy. Evidence that informed regional strategy preparation may also be material.

- Authorities should continue to develop core strategies and development plan documents (DPDs) reflecting local people's aspirations and decisions on key issues such as climate change, housing and economic development.

- Adopted DPDs and saved policies will provide the statutory planning framework. Councils may wish to review adopted documents but there is no need to review the whole local development framework.

- Authorities should identify sufficient sites and broad areas for development to deliver their housing ambitions for at least 15 years and a five-year supply of deliverable sites.

- Councils should collect and use reliable information to justify and defend housing supply policies.

Source DCLG, July 2010.

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