Policy Briefing: How statements of common ground could affect councils and developers

Local authorities' duty to co-operate on issues such as housing need is likely to be transformed into a duty to agree, says Stuart Mills.

New homes: proposals for new statements of common ground published last month
New homes: proposals for new statements of common ground published last month

Q What are the key details of the statement of common ground proposals?

A The government’s proposals were outlined in a consultation document, Planning for the right homes in the right places, that was published last month. All local planning authorities would be required to produce a statement of common ground identifying relevant cross-boundary strategic priorities and providing evidence of joint working. Such cross-boundary issues will include housing need and distribution and proposals for meeting any shortfalls.

Each statement of common ground will relate to an existing housing market area, unless authorities are able to jointly determine and justify an alternative area or produce more than one statement. Local authorities, county councils and government regulatory body the Marine Management Organisation should be signatories to strategic matters in any statement in which they have an interest.

Within six months of updating the National Planning Policy Framework, the government will expect local authorities to have prepared an outline statement, with the full version published within 12 months.

Q How will the new measure affect the duty to co-operate?

A No change is proposed to the statutory requirement for authorities to meet the duty. However, the new statements of common ground are likely to strengthen the mechanism by requiring councils to explicitly state what steps they have taken to work with their neighbours. As authorities will likely need to reach agreement on issues, the duty to co-operate is likely to be transformed into what is effectively a duty to agree.

Q What is the rationale behind the proposal?

A A significant number of local plans have been found unsound due to non-compliance with the duty to co-operate. If the changes meet their objectives, it will hopefully speed up plan-making and ensure housing and other development needs are effectively delivered within and across local authority boundaries.

The government believes that the current system suffers from a lack of transparency about how authorities are working together. It is also concerned that co-operation is only tested at the end of the plan-making process when it is too late to remedy any problems.

Q Does the proposal raise any further questions about how such statements will be prepared?

A The measure should help authorities to work together to meet housing needs in full across the relevant housing market area. However, it is unclear how the requirement to produce statements based on housing market areas will tie in with other proposals in the consultation that seek to focus housing need assessments more narrowly within local authority boundaries. Another concern is that there is little guidance on how the duty to agree will be enforced or how statements should be prepared where one authority is significantly ahead of its neighbour in preparing its local plan.

Q What implications does it present to local authority plan-makers?

A Preparing the statements will require a range of matters to be formally agreed between neighbouring councils and relevant stakeholders within a relatively short timeframe. This could be an additional burden on already-stretched planning departments. However, where agreement can be reached, a statement of common ground should provide a key piece of evidence to an inspector in a local plan examination that the duty to cooperate has been complied with, reducing the likelihood of challenge.

Q Do the proposed changes present any new risks or opportunities for applicants or promoters?

A Any increased transparency during the plan preparation process should enable promoters to gauge how well authorities are co-operating and allow them to hold plan-makers to account. If the requirement is effective, plans are less likely to be withdrawn at a late stage, which would reduce abortive costs for site promoters. However, there may be a risk to plan-making, and therefore to site promoters, where neighbours cannot agree.

Stuart Mills is a senior planner at Iceni Projects

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