How local plan panel's report would shake up the plan-making process

The chair of a heavyweight panel commissioned by the government to look at ways to streamline the local plan process has said that the recommendations contained in its report could have 'seismic' implications for calculating housing need and land supply.

Rhodes: agreeing housing numbers the biggest problem causing delay of local plan formation
Rhodes: agreeing housing numbers the biggest problem causing delay of local plan formation

Local plan-making is being held up by arguments over housing numbers and what authorities regard as an over-complex process, according to a panel set up last year by planning minister Brandon Lewis to consider how the process can be simplified.

The local plans expert group (LPEG)'s report, published alongside last week's Budget, proposes a host of far-reaching recommendations, including making local plans a statutory requirement, changing the test of soundness, strengthening the duty to cooperate and reducing the evidence base required. The report also proposes a two-year deadline for plan-making and introducing government powers to direct joint plans.

For a full interview with John Rhodes click here

Responding to the report, the government said that it will consult on the panel's recommendations until 27 April, and will "look at the scope to reduce the weight of outdated plans in decision-making".

In an exclusive interview with Planning, LPEG chair John Rhodes, director of planning consultancy Quod, said the report's key recommendations were "arguably" all as important as each other. He emphasised that the measures all work together as a package and the government should avoid cherry-picking individual proposals. But he described two recommendations, in relation to calculating objectively-assessed housing need and the five-year housing land supply, as potentially "seismic" in their impact on local plan-making.

Rhodes said that, evidence to the panel had identified the agreement of housing numbers as the "biggest problem" holding up the local plan process. The issue "dominates" both local plan examinations and why plans are found unsound, he said. The report proposes amending the government's planning practice guidance (PPG) on objectively assessing housing need. It recommends creating "a single, clear and simplified approach" agreed by both local authorities and developer.

In addition, a "standard calculation" of the required five-year housing land supply that would fix the level for 12 months should be introduced, the report says. It says the figure would be tested annually by an examiner and agreed by all parties. Rhodes said this proposal, if accepted, "would transform the way housing land is planned and delivered in positive way".

By settling the issue for a year, it would remove the uncertainty around housing land supply and much of the time developers and local authorities spend arguing about it, Rhodes added. He said: "It would take a lot of confrontation out of housing and planning. Communities would see far less planning by appeal. It could be much more effective at meeting housing need in a sustainable way."

Rhodes said other recommendations, including making sure that local plans focused only on strategic issues, would help speed up and simplify plan making. They would also "slash the cost and time spent producing local plans", reducing the burden on local authority planning teams, he added.

The group also felt there had been too much reform, Rhodes said, adding: "The government has to be careful. Too many planning reforms can bring the process into disrepute. The most important thing is to stand by the National Planning Policy Framework and introduce a period of confidence."

Matthew Spry, senior director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners and an advisor to the group, said he regarded the new measures on assessing housing need and land supply as the two most significant proposals. Clarifying the method of assessing need, including a proposal to remove the link between housing need and employment forecasts, "would remove a lot of time and debate from the process", said Spry. Such arguments at development plan examinations had "distracted from what local plans are supposed to be about", he added.

The constant challenging at appeal of an authority's housing land supply figure after it has already been tested at a development plan examination "puts the credibility of the plan-led system into disrepute", said Spry and is "very resource-intensive" for authorities. Spry added that the group was "very careful to put forward a set of recommendations that work with the grain of government policy".

Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society, said a key recommendation was the proposal to encourage more joint strategic planning and to strengthen the duty to cooperate. She said: "There are some strong messages about strategic planning and the fact that the current duty to cooperate is not enough to deal with the big cross-boundary issues. But the proposals are about improving the system we've got rather than saying we need a completely different approach." Riddell said it was important that the recommendations were acceptable to government.

Richard Pestell, director of planning at consultancy Peter Brett Associates, said the annual update and auditing of the five-year housing land supply "could be very helpful" and "save a lot of time". Pestell added that disconnecting assessing need with employment forecasts would be a "welcome change" as it has been "the main reason for local plan delays".

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