Why combined authority and mayoral intervention powers may prove a damp squib

Proposals to allow the London mayor and combined authorities to draw up local plans on behalf of councils in their areas could help town halls reach agreement over housing numbers, but may prove to be rarely used in practice, experts have said.

Government: Housing and Planning Bill amendment
Government: Housing and Planning Bill amendment

A government amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill could mean combined authorities or the London mayor taking over the preparation of local plans from councils in their area if they are too slow in bringing one forward. The amendment to the bill, tabled by planning minister Brandon Lewis, makes provision "for the secretary of state to invite the mayor of London or a combined authority to prepare or revise a development plan document for a local planning authority in their area that is failing to progress the document".

The measure could be a way of "bashing heads together and so overcome some of the barriers to getting a local plan agreed", said Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society. Riddell pointed out that in some districts plan-making has been stymied because authorities have not been able to agree on housebuilding targets across the housing market area. Intervention by a combined authority might help them to reach agreement, she explained.

The District Councils Network welcomed the reforms because they would boost the strategic planning role of combined authorities, said Jerry Unsworth, the network’s planning adviser. The proposals should however be part of a suite of other measures which "would enable planning across a whole market area", he urged.

Jennie Baker, senior planner at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, said that the new power is one of a set of government measures to speed up the preparation of plans in districts that do not meet the government’s 2017 target for preparing a plan. But she questioned whether the new powers would actually speed up the process within combined authority areas because of the procedures which the combined authority would have to follow. She said that a schedule prepared by the government explaining the amendments would require a combined authority to follow similar procedures as those followed by a district council.

The new arrangements would also only apply to those areas covered by combined authorities and London, missing out large swathes of the country. "There are currently five combined authorities and another three are likely to be established early next year," Baker pointed out.

Riddell said that not all the combined authorities would take on strategic planning functions and would therefore "not be in a position to draw up a local plan". The devolution deals being discussed do not all include the authorities drawing up a strategic framework for their sub-region, she pointed out. "If the combined authority does not have a strategic framework, it will not be in a position to draw up an effective local plan," she said.

The new powers could help London’s mayor implement his plan, said Bob McCurry, director at consultancy Barton Willmore’s London office. He pointed out that they would complement other measures in the Housing and Planning Bill to extend the London mayor’s call in powers. He added that most London boroughs are far advanced with preparation of their local plans but there were a few lagging far behind. "You have to question whether they are prepared to draw one up," he said. The new planning powers could bring them into line, McCurry suggested.

The strategic planning framework being drawn up by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is in effect seeking to do the job of the local plans for its ten constituent local authorities, suggested Chris Findley, planning director at the GMCA. It therefore expects that any move to take the responsibility for drawing up a local plan from a district would not be necessary, he said. Three of the councils in Greater Manchester do not yet have local plans in place but the detailed framework addresses issues of housing delivery, he said.

If a combined authority does take on local plan making for one of its members, it would have to ensure that it avoided upsetting that council, suggests John Pitchford, head of planning at Suffolk County Council, which is currently in discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government over establishing a combined authority to cover Norfolk as well as Suffolk.

"There would be 14 districts in our combined authority, and we see it operating by consensus, which we would not want to upset," Pitchford said. He suggested that if one of its member authorities was falling behind in preparing a local plan, the other members of the combined authority would work with it to overcome problems. "We would want to ensure that the district authority feels a sense of ownership towards its local plan and be prepared to implement it," he said, adding that it would be counterproductive for the council to feel that the plan was imposed on it.

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