What the tribulations of the West of England plan mean for the future of joint strategies

The withdrawal by local authorities from a four-year exercise in joint strategic planning is a setback for other areas engaging in cross-boundary collaboration, warn some observers. However, others say the demise of the West of England plan may actually provide helpful lessons for similar enterprises elsewhere.

Bath: city had been part of joint plan (pic: David Evans, Flickr)
Bath: city had been part of joint plan (pic: David Evans, Flickr)

A South Gloucestershire Council meeting on February 12 is set to result in the authority becoming the third out of four to withdraw itself from the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP). This follows serious and detailed criticism of the plan by examining inspectors in September. If Bristol City Council then follows suit as the fourth authority in the JSP, as observers expect, then the document, which proposed 105,000 new homes in the Bristol city region by 2036, will formally be no more.

This is despite the plan having been seen as a pioneer of a wave of joint strategic plans in various parts of England, designed to address cross-boundary city- or county-region scale issues such as housing provision. Its imminent demise leaves the future of planning in the West of England unclear, and raises questions over how other joint plans can win Planning Inspectorate (PINS) approval.

The withdrawal of the JSP by its constituent authorities was kicked off by North Somerset Council on January 7, and followed quickly by Bath and North East Somerset Council on January 16. Their actions were prompted by a series of letters by the inspectors stating that, in effect, the plan as submitted was considered irretrievably unsound. The inspectors said the evidence base failed to satisfactorily justify the identified locations for strategic development, on which over 17,000 homes were proposed. In particular, the inspectors felt alternative locations had not been assessed "on a robust, consistent and objective basis."

This is not a merely temporary setback. North Somerset Council said when it withdrew from the JSP that it planned to proceed instead with its own local plan, dealing with cross-border issues via the Localism Act's duty to co-operate. The three other JSP authorities – which together make up the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) – have not yet said how they will proceed if and when they they withdraw. They have stated only that they will continue to work together and will be "jointly commissioning a refresh of the strategic evidence base".

However, John Sneddon, managing director at Bristol-based consultant Tetlow King, said there was no prospect of a new JSP being developed. He said: "The councils will do their own thing and move to a standard duty-to-cooperate situation." Jeff Richards, head of planning for the South West at consultancy Turley, said: "There’s JSP fatigue. Councils will just want to crack on on their own, though they’ll need to work together to agree how to meet Bristol’s unmet housing need."

The one alternative is if WECA’s city region mayor Tim Bowles decides to draw up a mayoral spatial strategy covering the three constituent local authority areas. Simon Prescott, senior planning partner at consultant Barton Willmore’s Bristol office, said: "The big unknown is whether there is appetite from the mayor to use his spatial planning powers."

These travails are hardly encouraging for areas like Oxfordshire, south Essex, Greater Exeter and south west Hertfordshire, which have also started work on their own joint strategic plans. Chris Outtersides, south west Herts’ joint strategic plan director, said this was compounded by the expense of strategic plans. "Members will undoubtedly want to know where it has been successful before committing resources," he says. "It doesn’t help when other strategic plans haven’t worked."

But those involved in such work say there is little alternative. Barton Willmore’s Prescott said: "My worry is that the message that will come from this is that people shouldn’t engage in JSPs. But there are no easy options. The last round of core strategies here took three years in examination."

Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers’ Society, which represents public sector planners, agreed that authorities "don't really have much choice if they are to plan strategically in an effective way". But she said that other authorities will actually be helped by the West of England experience, adding: "I don't think it will derail them - if anything, it will help them. The problem with going first is that others get the benefit of your mistakes."

Simon Prescott said there is a strong lesson in the process by which development locations are selected. The JSP was effectively, he argued, developed as a patchwork of mini plans stitched together, meaning there were different approaches in different local authority areas. Councils, Prescott said, must instead develop a robust evidence base first, use that to develop the spatial strategy across the plan area, then only finally from that pick development locations.

Julia Foster, managing partner at consultant David Lock Associates, said: "Desperately unfortunate though the situation is, it is a failure in process and a consequence of patching-in post hoc rationalisation."

Outtersides said joint strategic plans must genuinely start with "a blank sheet of paper and no preconceived ideas of where growth can go." He said this meant looking at unconstrained capacity across the whole area. The role of sustainability appraisals in such strategies - which was a key objection by examiners to the West of England plan - is another lesson. Outtersides said: "There needs to be an agreed approach to the sustainability appraisal early on so everything is fairly assessed right from the word go."

Nevertheless, some observers suggest government must look again at the rules of the game. Riddell said it proved that government attempts to retrofit strategic planning into the post-NPPF system hadn’t worked and the system was not "fit for purpose". Foster said government needed to deliver resources and guidance, and make joint planning compulsory. "Statutory strategic planning can’t continue to be optional across many areas," she said. "Giving up should not be an option."

Timeline of events:

  • November 2015 – Bristol, South Gloucester, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset councils together publish an "issues and options" consultation kicking off proposals for an 85,000-home joint plan, targeting adoption by 2017.
  • April 2018 – The draft Joint Spatial Plan prepared by the four authorities is finally submitted, proposing 105,500 homes in the 20 years to 2036.
  • October 2018 – Planning inspectors request further information, requiring further council consultation, before examination begins.
  • August 2019 – Inspectors write to authorities setting out reasons they consider the JSP to be unsound and recommend its withdrawal from examination.
  • January 2020 – North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset councils withdraw from the JSP. Observers expect Bristol and South Gloucestershire to follow suit shortly.

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