Statutory local plans not on government's agenda, says Lewis

Planning minister Brandon Lewis has said the government has no plans to introduce a statutory duty on local authorities to produce local plans within a set timescale, saying such a move could produce 'unintended consequences'.

Housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis
Housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis

Appearing today at a Communities and Local Government select committee hearing on the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), Lewis was asked if the government was planning to introduce statutory targets to have local plans in place.

The minister said: "I think it’s quite important that we never say never to anything, but there are potential unintended consequences from having a statutory target. Not least that, as soon as you start putting some sort of statutory duty with a date target, you’ve got the risk that of local authorities trying to tick boxes rather than going for a proper holistic approach to their housing supply numbers, their housing need and their local plan".

Also speaking at the session, former planning minister and current cities minister, Greg Clark, who was one of the key architects of the NPPF, said that 90 per cent of local authorities would have published a local plan by May 2015.

"We’ll go from 32 per cent having them [in 2010] to 90 per cent having them at the end of the Parliament", he said.

Referring to Clark’s figures, Lewis said: "I think actually, the position we’ve got to, if you think about the fact that we’re going to be looking at 90 per cent [local plan coverage] by next year, 80 per cent have now been published already, I think it’s a pretty good place to be".

The National Infrastructure Plan, published in December 2013, said the government would "consult on measures to improve plan-making, including a statutory requirement to put a local plan in place".

Last month, shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods said a Labour government would consider introducing a statutory duty to make a local plan, saying Labour wanted to "shorten timescales".

The planning minister also said town centres needed to change with evolving shopping habits. He said one way to do this could be via further changes to make it easier to convert buildings to other uses.

He said: "What we’re looking at in terms of the consultation we’ve just done, which we’ve not responded to yet … is about how we allow areas to potentially speed that up. So one of the things we’ve been looking at [is that] people made the case that it is very, very easy for a pub to convert into a fast food restaurant or supermarket … but it is very difficult to go from the other way around, to go from convenience store to a food outlet or a coffee shop or drink establishment, and [we are] looking at whether that flexibility needs to be there to enable … town centres to be able to move more fluidly to suit what the customers want because, ultimately, the town centres which survive will survive because they are focused on what we as customers are driving them to be".

Elsewhere, Lewis defended the Localism Act’s duty to cooperate. Asked if there was a need for "clarity on what represents cooperation", Lewis said the risk was that if government started "saying to local areas ‘here are the tickboxes you need in order to qualify’, people will start ticking boxes.

"I think we’ve got to have courage to trust people who are elected to the right thing by the people they are elected by".

Lewis also said combined authorities represented a good model for cooperation between councils.

"If areas can come together to work together on that kind of level I think it’s a really good thing and it gives benefits of economies of scale for the community, efficiencies for the community and hopefully a really good strategic approach to things as well".

The minister also said the government was working with campaign group the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) to identify more brownfield sites for development.

He said the government had unveiled a raft of brownfield initiatives in recent months, but would go further.

"One of the pieces of work I’m looking to do over the next few months with CPRE is looking at some of the land that they believe is available as well to take this to the next stage", he said. 

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