Lewis must take steps to boost plan-making, by Richard Garlick

Do we have a planning minister who doesn't believe in planning?

Last week, Brandon Lewis told a journalist that councils could "conceivably decide that they don't want a local plan and they will rely on the National Planning Policy Framework" (NPPF).

Such cases would not be "necessarily ideal", but there would be "no role for government" if such a decision were taken, he said. In other words, councils worried about the financial or political cost of publishing a plan can hold off without fear of government action.

Lewis's spokeswoman denied that this meant that he did not care whether councils had plans in place. Several commentators, however, have suggested that, with UKIP making political capital out of planning issues, it would suit the Conservatives if town halls avoided publishing controversial plans between now and the general election.

Preparing plans, after all, requires consideration of whether the exceptional circumstances justifying release of green belt land exist. That is a topic that no politician relishes exploring in the run-up to polling day.

You could of course argue that it doesn't much matter whether a minister takes a hard line on the need for local plans. Whether or not local authorities put one in place depends less on how much the minister shouts at them and more on the consequences of not having a plan at all. For many authorities, the NPPF is enough of a spur in itself to motivate plan production, because in most places it means that a council without a plan would lose control of development.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, on its own, the NPPF will not be sufficient to produce the complete plan coverage that Lewis maintains that he wants. Only slightly more than half of English local authorities have adopted plans.

Some councils that are heavily constrained by their surrounding green belt seem to feel that strong ministerial support for green belt policies provides them with adequate protection from unwanted development, making plan preparation a less urgent priority than it might otherwise have been. Other local authorities, particularly district councils, complain that they simply do not have the funds to prepare a development plan, much as they would like to steer development in their areas.

But local planning authorities need to plan. With no regional plans to provide an alternative method of identifying growth areas, every council has to do its bit in allocating the sites needed for housing and jobs growth. Those that don't plan place an unfair burden on those that do.

Lewis's predecessor, Nick Boles, recognised this, and the fact that the NPPF in itself would not be enough to ensure comprehensive local plan coverage. Hence he proposed a statutory duty for councils to produce a local plan. Lewis has shelved that proposal. He may have been right to question how workable it was. But if Lewis genuinely wants to see comprehensive local plan coverage, he needs to find additional methods of encouraging it.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning richard.garlick@haymarket.com

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