How the three councils under Whitehall plan-making scrutiny are faring

How are the three councils undergoing central government scrutiny of their local plan production faring, asks Adam Branson.

Wirral: council seeks guidance on projection implications
Wirral: council seeks guidance on projection implications

It is an issue that has been bubbling away for more than three years but has yet to reach boiling point. In July 2015, the then housing minister Brandon Lewis announced that local planning authorities that hadn’t produced a local plan by "early 2017" would face the prospect of being stripped of the responsibility, with the government then writing it for them. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 then gave the secretary of state the power to take over preparation of a development plan if he thinks the council is "failing" in its plan-making duty. But the early 2017 deadline came and passed with no Whitehall action.

The threat was revived last November by then communities secretary Sajid Javid, who announced he would commence action against 15 councils to remove their plan-making powers for taking too long to produce their development strategies. Councils were given until the end of January this year to respond. In March, Javid said that only three councils – Wirral on Merseyside, Thanet in Kent and Castle Point in Essex – would face scrutiny for failing to reach "milestones" on their own local plan timetable.

Civil servants from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) were dispatched to investigate the three councils’ processes and report back to the secretary of state. To date, however, no decision about whether to intervene further has been made. It seems the government is in no rush to do so. Planning minister Kit Malthouse told Planning last month that the deadline for deciding what to do next had been set for 24 January.

Some in the sector are sceptical that the government will ever actually take over a plan. One senior consultant says the ministry lacks the resources to intervene: "I think it’s a case of the boy who cried wolf." But according to Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers’ Society and a freelance consultant, the threat of intervention has been effective in pushing the 15 councils named to take action. However, she is a bit surprised that not one has faced further action. "We had assumed the government would follow through with at least one. There has been a realisation in government that taking plans away from these authorities isn’t going to deliver plans any quicker."

But it would be a mistake to think the lack of action means the MHCLG is doing nothing. "Having spoken to various councils involved, MHCLG is in regular contact," says Katie Gabriel, account executive at communications consultancy Curtin & Co. "They’re being chased all the time." An MHCLG spokeswoman said: "Local plan intervention in local authorities who fail to adopt a plan remains an option open to ministers. A decision in the Thanet, Castle Point and Wirral cases will be made in due course."

THANET

At the heart of Thanet District Council’s delay in publishing a local plan was a dispute over the closed Manston Airport near Ramsgate. Following March’s announcement of greater MHCLG scrutiny, the council published a pre-submission draft of the plan in September. It removed the airport as a site for housing, but said a plan review will need to consider the best use of the site if current plans for air cargo operations at Manston do not proceed. Following consultation on the draft plan, which closed on 4 October, the council sent the submission version to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) on 30 October. The draft plan insists that airport operation at Manston is "very unlikely" to be financially viable in the longer term. However, the council has agreed not to allocate the airport site in the current plan to avoid prejudice to developer RiverOak Strategic Partners’ development consent order (DCO) application for air cargo operations. The DCO was submitted to PINS in July and is under examination. Following the draft plan’s submission, a council spokeswoman said she thought the authority is now off the government’s intervention "hitlist", though the MHCLG would not confirm this. One consultant active in the area claims the council’s recent focus on its local plan has meant a slowdown in application determination. But a council spokesman said in response: "Work on the Thanet Local Plan has not hindered the determination of planning applications, as evidenced by the council’s good performance on speed and quality of planning decision-making."

WIRRAL 

Under the threat of intervention, Wirral Council published its draft local plan on 3 September, with formal consultation ending on 26 October. The plan was based on the government’s proposed standard method, which suggested that the area would need to deliver 12,000 homes by 2035, or 800 homes a year. After the plan had been published, however, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released revised figures on household formation, which indicated that the requirement in Wirral would be much lower at 500 homes a year. As a result, council leader Phil Davies has written to the government asking for further guidance. A spokesman said the council hopes a "variant" set of household projections, provisionally scheduled by ONS for publication on 3 December, will "give us clarity". According to one consultant who knows the area well, the council has been put in an uncomfortable position, having bitten the bullet and suggested removing around 50 green belt sites in the published draft plan. "The new household formation figures are good news in a sense but it’s really bad timing because the local plan went out for public consultation based on the former projections," she says. "If the council can use the new figures, it would have to revise its plan significantly and it would be pushed into the long grass again."

CASTLE POINT

In April 2017, Castle Point Borough Council formally withdrew its draft local plan from examination following an inspector’s conclusion that it had failed to meet the duty to cooperate. The following month, a special meeting of the council agreed to a new plan-making timetable, which has so far been respected. The council invited comments on the contents of a new draft plan between 4 July and 15 August. This attracted "more than 1,100 comments from over 630 individuals and organisations", according to the council. As with the other two councils under scrutiny by the MHCLG, commentators say that reaching this milestone was sufficient to ensure that the department was content to allow the council to continue working up the plan without intervention. "They’re continuing to work on the plan, with submission scheduled for early in the new year," says consultant Catriona Riddell, who is working with Castle Point, Basildon and Brentwood Councils on a joint statutory plan. "At the moment it’s just a monitoring brief from the MHCLG. It’s not doing anything other than making sure that they’re sticking to their timetable." Indeed, Riddell thinks that the borough’s agreement to work up a joint plan may have helped to ensure that to date there has been no MHCLG intervention. "The danger was that if the government had intervened in Castle Point it would have disrupted the whole joint planning process, which is what’s needed in that area to address the issues in the first place," she says. "I think government understood that eventually, but it did take a lot of persuasion."

HOW THE 12 OTHER COUNCILS ARE FARING SINCE THEY WERE WARNED OF INTERVENTION

  • Basildon District Council: Approved submission version of draft plan in October 
  • Bolsover District Council: Submitted draft plan for examination in August 
  • Brentwood Borough Council: Pre-submission local plan due to be considered for approval on 8 November
  • Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council: Published draft plan in August 
  • Eastleigh Borough Council: Published draft plan in June 
  • Liverpool City Council: Submitted draft plan for examination in May 
  • Mansfield District Council: Published draft plan in September 
  • North East Derbyshire District Council: Submitted draft plan for examination in May 
  • Northumberland Council: Published draft plan in June 
  • Runnymede Borough Council: Submitted draft plan for examination in July 
  • St Albans City and District Council: Published draft plan in September 
  • York City Council: Submitted draft plan for examination in May


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