Hidden in the small print of a technical consultation on the Housing and Planning Bill was a surprise suggestion that government intervention in local plan preparation could extend further than previously outlined.
A written statement published by planning minister Brandon Lewis last July had said that, in cases where no local plan has been produced by early 2017, "we will intervene to arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people". But last week's consultation document goes further, proposing that authorities "which have not kept the policies in their local plan up-to-date will be a high priority for intervention".
The consultation document also proposes that the government will prioritise intervention in a number of circumstances, including where there is "under-delivery of housing in areas of high housing pressure". It adds that, in reaching decisions on prioritising intervention, the government will take factors into account including how local authorities are working cooperatively to get plans in place, as well as the "potential impact that not having a local plan has on neighbourhood planning activity".
Matthew Spry, senior director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, said the proposal to extend intervention to councils without up-to-date policies in their local plan "certainly opens up a large number of authorities to being subject to consideration for potential intervention".
Spry said latest Planning Inspectorate data shows that only 32 per cent of local authorities have a local plan that was found sound or adopted after the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). A number of authorities' plans pre-date the NPPF and could not therefore be considered up-to-date, he said. "A lot of those plans were produced under the old regional spatial strategy world," he explained.
"Those plans won't have been prepared with a view to meeting objectively assessed need under the NPPF."
Asher Ross, director at consultancy Boyer, added that some plans that have been adopted post-NPPF could not now be considered up-to-date. "These might be fairly recent local plans, but they can become out of date fairly quickly," Ross said. He added that the consultation says local plans should be reviewed at least every five years. He said that a group of 85 plans, adopted in 2010, 2011 and 2012 should therefore be coming up for review "fairly quickly" and if are not updated to reflect new housing need evidence, could be in line for intervention. "A substantial number of plans could come under this criteria in the near future," he said.
Planning Officers Society strategic planning convenor Catriona Riddell welcomed the proposal to have regard to how authorities are working cooperatively to get plans in place when making decisions on prioritising intervention in plan-making. She said this suggested that in areas where a devolution deal is being developed and part of the agreement is about strategic planning, "there is more opportunity for not falling foul of the criteria".
Spry agreed that the consultation document suggests that authorities could be spared intervention if they had worked with their neighbours to agree housing numbers across a housing market area. He said it suggests that if a local authority has not made obvious progress with its plan, but had agreed the distribution of housing numbers with its neighbours, such as through a memorandum of understanding, "that kind of progress would be taken into account as a mitigating factor".
Spry predicted that the consultation's proposal to prioritise intervention in instances where there is under-delivery of housing in areas of high housing pressure would mean that councils which have failed to progress plans due to local political difficulties with accepting increased housing numbers "are going to be the ones most likely to sense that they are at risk of intervention".
Riddell said that areas of high housing pressure "tend to be the areas around the big cities and tend to be green belt". She said that, in such areas, politics tends to be at the heart of a council's failure to move forward with local plans. "It's not about the ability of planners and the technical evidence base," she said.