In 2010, the newly-arrived Conservative communities secretary Eric Pickles announced the abolition of regional spatial strategies. Introduced in 2004 by the Labour government, the strategies were intended to allow planning across local authority boundaries on strategic issues such as housing and infrastructure. For Pickles, however, the strategies represented "failed Soviet tractor-style top-down planning targets," that had been ineffective in boosting housebuilding. Instead, the government introduced the Localism Act’s duty to cooperate, which legally requires councils to engage and work with neighbours on strategic issues such as meeting housing need.
It seems the new Conservative administration is less concerned about top-down measures. A proposed new power for ministers to order local authorities to prepare joint plans has been introduced by planning minister Gavin Barwell through an amendment to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. It would enable communities secretary Sajid Javid to direct two or more councils to prepare a joint local plan and would be used to "facilitate the more effective planning of the development and use of land" across the area.
The move follows a key recommendation in the government-commissioned Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG) report earlier this year. This called for the government to impose joint plans "where agreement has not been reached on the distribution of strategic housing needs," says John Rhodes, LPEG chair and director of consultancy Quod. Rhodes adds: "The government is probably frustrated that more joint planning does not take place, particularly where neighbouring authorities comprise the immediate hinterland of boundary-constrained large towns or cities."
However, a number of authorities have already been engaging in larger-than-local strategic planning, despite the disappearance of regional strategies. Commentators say that this is in part due to a belief that the duty to cooperate does not do enough to forge effective collaboration across local authority boundaries. Independent planning consultant Malcolm Sharp, former president of the Planning Officers Society (POS), says that "most professional planners" believe the duty is not an effective replacement for regional strategies.
Experts report that more councils are voluntarily getting involved in formal or informal arrangements with neighbours to deal with strategic issues. Catriona Riddell, POS’ strategic planning convenor, says that there are currently at least ten areas in England where authorities are engaged in bottom-up joined-up working and "probably another ten or more which are in the early stages" of doing so. Rhodes believes there are "approximately a dozen" groups of authorities that "have completed or are undertaking joint local planning exercises".
Why do some councils do it if they don’t technically have to? "Because of a recognition that it produces better results," Rhodes says. According to Richard Pestell, director of planning at consultancy Peter Brett Associates, many local authority geographies do not reflect "social or economic realities on the ground - most planners would agree that local authority boundaries are not always sensible". Craig Jordan, head of economic growth at Lichfield District Council in Staffordshire, which is currently working with 13 neighbouring councils on a joint housing strategy, agrees: "The way the world works is not constrained by administrative boundaries," he says.
Voluntary cross-border agreements can range from authorities simply preparing shared evidence bases to "fully-blown" statutory joint local plans, Riddell says. She adds that producing joint strategic frameworks or shared evidence bases, even though they are not statutory documents, is a safe way to demonstrate that councils have complied with the duty to cooperate.
They can also help councils to get their local plans in place, says Matthew Spry, senior director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners. "If cross-boundary issues, such as housing need spillover, aren’t tackled effectively, there’s a risk that individual plans will fail at examination," he says, or be required to undergo early review.
Cross-boundary working can also bring financial benefits, say experts. Being able to set out long-term priorities over a larger area puts auth-orities in a "much stronger position" to bid for central government funding or private sector investment, says Riddell. Pestell argues that councils can make significant savings by achieving economies of scale through collaboration. "It is far cheaper to create a housing or employment evidence base for a group of authorities over a sensible geography than to do it individually," he says.
Philippa Smith, Sandwell Borough Council’s spatial policy and development manager, says the authority and three of its neighbours collectively benefitted by around £1 million by producing the joint Black Country core strategy. "We saved a lot of money by producing one lot of evidence," says Smith. "We also pooled all our resources in terms of people and skills, which was great because we were able to learn from each other as well." Having a joint local plan can also put authorities in a better position when negotiating with developers, Smith adds, because having a joint set of policies means developers are unable to "play one authority against another".
Some argue that producing such joint local plans ensures that all authorities involved stick to their commitments. Where councils engage in strategic joint working without the force of such statutory documents, there is a risk that one or more authorities could turn their backs on the agreement, as happened last month when South Oxfordshire Council pulled out of a deal to agree housing allocations with its neighbours. Riddell says: "When you’re making decisions in the interest of the greater good, and looking at housing delivery across a strategic area, there will always be winners and losers. But authorities can walk away at any point in the process and everything falls apart."
Ian MacLeod, assistant director for planning and regeneration at Birmingham City Council, is well aware of this danger. He is working on preparing a joint memorandum of understanding between 14 councils in the Greater Birmingham Housing Market Area (see panel). MacLeod, who chairs the meetings between the authorities, says that once an agreement is reached, "there’s a risk that [the councils] won’t meet that need for one reason or another".
For it to work, all 14 councils in the sub-region have to understand that "the consequence, if we don’t meet the housing need, is overcrowding and worsening affordability". What would help, MacLeod concludes, is a new statutory requirement to plan across council boundaries. "We need to go back to some form of strategic planning at the sub-regional level."
With the amendment to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, it seems the government is listening. One wonders what Pickles, a champion of localism, might think of this "top-down" measure. However, he may be pleased to see that many areas have already taken steps down this road without the need for central government intervention.
TWO AREAS PLANNING ACROSS COUNCIL BOUNDARIES
In Suffolk, the county council and seven district councils have been working jointly over the last 18 months to produce the Suffolk Strategic Planning and Infrastructure Framework. Catriona Riddell, who has been working with the authorities, describes it as a "high-level framework which addresses long-term housing, economic and infrastructure needs, as well as options for where development will go". This model of "bottom-up" strategic planning is something that the government and the Local Plan Expert Group have been examining, she says. The framework, which she expects to be completed next spring, is non-statutory. John Pitchford, Suffolk County Council’s head of planning, says the framework will help suppliers of water understand where future investments will have to be made. "We’ve got the driest part of the country, and there will be significant areas with new demand for development," he says.
Birmingham City Council and 13 neighbouring authorities in the Greater Birmingham Housing Market Area are working on preparing a joint memorandum of understanding which would see them agree to share a housing shortfall of almost 40,000 homes. Ian MacLeod, Birmingham’s assistant director for planning and regeneration, notes that council leaders may face difficulties trying to sell significant new housing developments to their electorate, but says that they have upsides. "Ultimately, new housing can bring benefits as well: an increase in government New Homes Bonus funding and new infrastructure provision that can go in on the back of housing developments."
However, the memorandum is currently being held up following an intervention by former communities secretary Greg Clark in the examination of Birmingham City Council’s local plan, which proposes to release green belt land for up to 6,000 homes to help meet the shortfall. MacLeod says that the situation is causing uncertainty over the city’s ability to provide housing and jeopardising other councils’ willingness to release green belt land. "Why would other authorities look at their green belt if our green belt is seen as almost sacrosanct?" he asks.
NOTE: this feature was updated at 12pm on Wednesday 2 November to clarify a quote from John Rhodes on how many groups of authorities are taking part in joint planning.