What a power to direct joint strategies would mean for plan-making

A proposed new power for ministers to order local authorities to prepare joint plans could help break logjams where councils have failed to resolve strategic cross-boundary issues, experts have said.

Westminster: changes to Neighbourhood Planning Bill
Westminster: changes to Neighbourhood Planning Bill

An amendment to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill,introduced by planning minister Gavin Barwell, would enable the secretary of state to direct councils to prepare joint local plans. According to a statement, the direction would be used only if the secretary of state considered that it would lead to "more effective planning of the development and use of land".

The direction would specify the area and matters to be covered by the joint plan, and the timetable for its preparation. The secretary of state would need to give reasons for the direction. The move follows the recommendations of the government-commissioned Local Plans Expert Group (LPEG) report, which argued that such a measure would help to resolve cross-boundary disputes around issues such as housing provision and distribution.

"This is a recognition by the government that planning geography has become progressively more dysfunctional in terms of the strategic priorities which span out across historic boundaries," said Derek Stebbing, a consultant at Intelligent Plans and Examinations and member of the LPEG. The duty to co-operate, said Stebbing, is "not working because unmet housing need is not being provided within the boundary of other districts".

Stebbing cited Brighton as an example, saying that the city’s constrained geography means that it has "almost nowhere to go" to provide for its housing need, with other Sussex authorities failing to provide for the proportion that is unmet. "The government is now seeking to address situations like this with the direction for joint plans," he said.

Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, said that the direction signals that the government wants all councils to pursue joint plans – even where there are no cross-boundary disputes – unless there are particular reasons not to. "It is a recognition that we need more effective strategic planning and that the duty to co-operate is not working," she said. "But the government doesn’t want to throw the whole system into the air again, so they are seeing how they can do better using the current system, and saying that they want more joint plans."

Riddell predicted that the government would support moves towards joint plans, even in the context of the fast-approaching 2017 deadline for preparing plans. "I’m not sure if they will revise the deadline, but I think that they will look favourably on local authorities preparing plans on a joint basis, particularly where there has been a dispute about housing or green belt issues," she said.

Matthew Spry, senior director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners and an adviser to the LPEG, also welcomed the amendment, but warned that it would not resolve the issue of authorities being unwilling to make difficult decisions. "At the moment, it is too easy for some local authorities to avoid making any decision at all, and not to progress a plan," he said.

But Spry said that having the direction in place would send a clear message to local authorities that they need to work together, "and that if they fail to do it, then there is a trigger for the secretary of state to intervene under the existing arrangements," he said.
Steve Ingram, strategic director of development and growth at South Kesteven District Council, said that he would expect "very limited use" of the power by the secretary of state, but that it could prove a useful tool where there is a lack of agreement to work together. "Some form of direction to work together for the greater good could be useful," he said. "But you’d hope it wouldn’t come to that – it should be logical to work together."

Experts also expressed surprise over a separate amendment introduced by Barwell that would enable the government to invite a county councils to "prepare, revise or adopt" a plan where it is considered that a district council in its area has failed to do so. Some practitioners questioned whether counties have the expertise to conduct such work. But Riddell suggested that the move was designed "to cover all bases", as the Housing and Planning Act had already set out similar powers for combined authorities. She said that the ?latest move was designed to mirror those arrangements elsewhere.

See feature: Joined up thinking on strategic plans

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