Why progress on a joint spatial plan is proving slower than expected

Hold-ups on a planning strategy put together by four West Country unitary authorities highlight the difficulties and uncertainties facing joint spatial plans, according to experts.

Bristol: the city is one of the four authorities preparing the West of England Joint Spatial Plan, including Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestshire and North Somerset
Bristol: the city is one of the four authorities preparing the West of England Joint Spatial Plan, including Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestshire and North Somerset

Last month, it was confirmed that the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP), the first of a new wave of joint plans approaching the examination stage, has hit significant delays. The plan, which was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) in April, is designed to provide a strategic development framework for four authorities – Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset – for the 20 years to 2036. The submission draft outlined plans for 105,500 homes supporting the delivery of 82,500 jobs, but the inspectors have asked for further information and clarification, which requires further consultation.

Housing minister Kit Malthouse has made clear that he sees encouraging the creation of joint plans as a key part of his mission to tackle the housing crisis, recently warning local authorities not to operate as "little islands". So the West of England JSP is being keenly watched. Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, said: "It’s the first of its kind, so PINS is in new territory." The delays may therefore have lessons both for the sub-region and for other joint planning efforts in Oxfordshire, Exeter, Greater Manchester, South Essex and elsewhere.

The four authorities had originally targeted JSP adoption by spring 2017. By the time it was submitted this spring, they were aiming for the examination to start in earnest around now, ahead of adoption next summer. The issues raised by inspectors Malcolm Rivett and Steven Lee range from providing more evidence of fulfilling the duty to cooperate and justifying the plan’s affordable housing policy to assessing the implications for protected habitats of April’s landmark European Court of Justice decision in People Over Wind v Coillte Teoranta. The councils now plan to issue a consultation addressing the issues next month, leading to an examination in May.

In a statement to Planning, a spokesman for the four authorities said they are now expecting the plan to be adopted by "late 2019". He said the plan is "breaking new ground" and that some of the issues, such as the People Over Wind ruling, could not have been anticipated. "The process leading up to the examination in public will always involve questions and clarifications being sought," he said, adding: "We are committed to taking the time required to get this right, which has been supported by the inspectors." Riddell also downplayed the delay. "There don’t appear to be any showstoppers," she said.

However, not everyone is so optimistic. Jeff Richards, head of planning for the South West at consultants Turley, said it is now "extremely unlikely" that the plan will be adopted in 2019. John Sneddon, managing director at consultants Tetlow King Planning, said he can’t see it being adopted next year. Currently, two of the four councils don’t have a fiveyear housing land supply, and all four local plans are in need of review, so the delays have ramifications for developers and authorities. "Delay means continued uncertainty for developers, continued constraints on supply, additional cost and continued uncertainty for local authorities," said Sneddon.

Developer-led groups have described the housing target in the plan as inadequate. Some consultants say the problems result from rushing the plan out in advance of the introduction of the government’s new standard method for calculating housing need, which had initially implied a need for a higher target of 116,500 homes. "There are significant deficiencies in the evidence base, caused by the rush to get the plan out before the standard method," said Sneddon. "It’s a case of having to fill in the gaps now," said Richards. But it’s not just filling in the gaps. Some of the issues raised by the inspectors may be more fundamental. One of the thorniest is that, as a strategic plan, the JSP isn’t intended to allocate specific sites. However, it does earmark 12 broad locations for "strategic development" in the plan policies and sets specific detailed development requirements for them, making it something of a hybrid between a strategic and a local plan.

The inspectors have questioned this approach but the four councils have said they will retain it, subject to further clarification when they next consult: "The level of detail in the plan has probably gone a step too far," said Richards. "It’s asking inspectors to examine precise detail, such as around infrastructure, but without a red line around specific sites. It’s a bit of a hybrid. It is probably not going to be an easy examination."

As yet, however, the inspectors haven’t raised any queries about the overall housing requirement. Simon Prescott, a partner at the Barton Willmore consultancy, said his firm has calculated that 140,000 homes are needed. He suspects that this issue will dominate the examination. "These plans need to tackle the level of new homes head on," said Prescott. "The 105,500 number sounds a lot but it’s really nowhere near good enough. Authorities shouldn’t be waiting for the inspector to impose higher numbers on them."

Riddell thinks there are wider lessons for other joint planning authorities from the West of England’s experience. "The main issue for others to think about is whether you can have a strategic plan with no site allocations and how much evidence is needed to demonstrate deliverability if you don’t include sites."

JOINT PLAN PROGRESS ELSEWHERE

With government encouragement, more local authorities have committed to develop joint plans in the wake of the Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury Joint Core Strategy, adopted in 2017.

Greater Manchester Spatial Framework: A draft version setting out plans for 227,000 new homes was published in 2016, but metropolitan mayor Andy Burnham put it under review following his election in 2017. The framework has now been further delayed to take account of the standard method for assessing housing need.

Oxfordshire Joint Spatial Plan: Six Oxfordshire councils have committed to drawing up a statutory spatial plan covering the period up to 2050, to help to deliver their commitment to build 100,000 homes by 2031. A consultation on a draft plan is expected in March 2019, with submission in March 2020.

Greater Exeter Strategic Plan: Five Devon authorities have joined forces to create a plan for the area to 2040. An initial consultation was held in February 2017, but the draft plan consultation has been delayed until June next year because of an uncertain national policy environment.

South Essex Joint Strategic Plan: Seven Essex authorities signed a statement of common ground in June committing them to drawing up a joint strategic plan to deliver 90,000 homes over 20 years. A consultation is expected in spring 2019, with submission targeted in March 2020.


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