Legal Viewpoint - Changing attitudes on core principles

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requirement for development plans to meet "objectively assessed needs" is a core principle of the planning system.

The Planning Inspectorate is holding local authorities to account on development plan preparation, and the courts are providing useful support.

Waverley Borough Council's core strategy examiner asked for further work to update the authority's housing market assessment, after finding that it was intending to rely on an inadequate analysis. Its new assessment found a need for significantly higher housing numbers, and the strategy has been withdrawn for amendments. This follows on from the Bath and North East Somerset core strategy, where progress was suspended last year because of the need for adequate evidence on housing need. Further work has just been considered by the examiner and an amber light has been given.

The Localism Act's "duty to cooperate" is similarly important. In effect, it replaces strategic planning. Kirklees Council's core strategy examiner advised that its housing need methodology was inconsistent with others in the area, making coordination difficult. He noted that the council had set a housing need figure before any involvement with other authorities and this "unilateral approach" was not cooperative. Critically, he noted that the duty to cooperate test applies at the date of submission, and the council's proposals to consult were too little too late. The core strategy has now been withdrawn.

In similar vein, Hart District Council has just withdrawn its core strategy. Its examiner found that objectively assessed housing needs had not been identified for the wider housing market area, including adjacent authorities. He noted that constructive and effective discussions were impossible in the absence of an identified need. In fairness, Hart Council tried to persuade neighbouring Rushmoor and Surrey Heath Councils to work jointly, but when they initially refused to meet, Hart gave up on identifying the wider area's needs.

The courts are policing these principles. In the High Court, University of Bristol v North Somerset Council [2013] saw a debate about whether the core strategy inspector had properly understood and assessed housing needs arguments. After detailed analysis of housing market areas, population structures and jobs to housing ratios, the judge concluded that the inspector had not properly taken account of latent demand in the North Somerset area. The strategy was sent back to the council to reconsider.

The NPPF requirement to meet objectively assessed needs is being applied with rigour, while the duty to cooperate is being monitored and enforced. Both require changes in planning authorities' behaviour. The courts are enforcing these principles and requiring examiners to address the key issues before them. If this continues, we will have a workable development plan system.


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