'Duty to agree' will be the last straw for some councils, by Catriona Riddell

Since the government's latest consultation on measures to boost housing supply in England, Planning for the right homes in the right places, there has been a lot of debate about the proposed new methodology for assessing housing need.

But relatively little has been said about the other proposals within the document. Inevitably, anything to do with setting housing targets will be contentious and will be the focus of attention. But for me, the real challenges in the government’s proposals are around strategic planning and particularly, the proposed new statement of common ground.

The intentions of strengthening the duty to cooperate and encouraging more effective strategic planning are very clear in everything produced by the government. The sticks being employed to get local plans and housing targets in place, such as the proposed new housing delivery test and a stricter approach to five-year land supply, are softened by carrots, such as access to infrastructure funding, where local authorities are working jointly.

In addition to the incentives on offer for more effective joint working, local authorities will have to prepare a statement of common ground with their partners within the housing market area (or other defined strategic planning area), setting out how they will address housing needs across the area.

Some are interpreting this simply as a written agreement, similar to a memorandum of understanding that many local authorities are already party to as a result of the duty. Others feel that, if it is a proposal to genuinely give the duty more teeth, it must be more than this; it must demonstrate that housing and the infrastructure needed to support it is being dealt with properly, setting out the overall strategy for an area, within which the housing growth will be implemented.

Perhaps the answer lies in the proposed changes to the test of soundness also included in the consultation document. In addition to preparing a statement of common ground, local authorities would be expected to demonstrate at examination that their plan is "based on a strategy informed by agreements over the wider area, and on effective joint working on cross-boundary strategic priorities" (as evidenced in the statement of common ground). This effectively means that, for the first time since the duty was introduced in 2011, it is now a duty to agree strategic planning objectives, including housing targets across strategic planning areas.

In the continuing absence of a requirement for statutory strategic plans, this will undoubtedly prove very challenging, particularly where the new methodology has significantly increased the housing need within an area and consequently the "to be found" shortfall. It may well prove to be the last straw for some councils, who will simply put their local plan into the "too difficult" box and down tools. It’s not clear what sanctions will be employed by government in this situation, as the consultation document is silent on this, but the risk of progressing an unsustainable plan and alienating whole communities may be a risk that some are simply not willing to take.

Catriona Riddell is a strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant

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