How the government's binding new local plan housing targets could be set, by Catriona Riddell

There is a lot to read and digest in the government’s proposed planning reforms. There is also a lot of detail missing if this is to add up to a coherent planning system that can deliver good places.

The proposed ending of the duty on councils to co-operate on planning matters that cross local authority boundaries will not be mourned by many. But the question of what replaces it to ensure a more effective approach to cross-border planning is obviously one of the bigger holes in the proposals. Another, which has perhaps generated the most debate so far, is how the new mandatory local plan housing targets will be formulated.  

We know that the starting point will be a revision of the government’s standard method for assessing local housing needs, currently worked out using a ten-year average of the 2014-based national household growth projections. The government is consulting on this in its proposed changes to the current system, a separate set of immediate reforms that will be implemented before the planning White Paper alterations. 

We also know that the figure produced by the revised standard method will then be amended to take into account the constraints in each area, resulting in the new local plan housing target, which the government says will not be negotiable.

What remains unclear is how these targets will be tested and whether the planning system will provide an opportunity to challenge the figures.

A key question is how to take into account the long term growth vision for an area, national growth priorities such as the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the plan to ‘level up’ left-behind areas of the UK through investment in strategic infrastructure. 

So, what would be needed to fill in the blanks and provide a more coherent process, and how will the government ensure that the end result reflects the aspirations of local areas as well as a more sustainable approach to growth nationally?

The 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act required that certain local authorities (county councils, unitary authorities and national park authorities) should have a statutory duty to advise regional assemblies and government offices on long term priorities. Section 4.4 authorities, as they were known, advised on housing distribution across sub-regions and the allocations for each local planning authority, having tested different spatial scenarios and their impact on the regional vision and strategy. 

This advice was critically important, as it helped shape regional spatial, transport and economic priorities, as well as central government investment priorities to support growth, particularly national infrastructure. 

Things have changed considerably since then, and we no longer have any formal strategic planning tier in the system or bodies with this responsibility. For most places, things like vision and strategic priorities have to be addressed through local plans using the soon-to-be-defunct duty to cooperate, which has clearly failed to deliver.  We also now have combined authorities covering large parts of England, but with varying roles and responsibilities in planning and supporting growth.

Of course, the government could simply use a computer algorithm, along with part of the standard method formula, to set the local plan housing targets. But if the recent debacle with exam results is anything to go by, that approach is unlikely to end well for anyone, with significant opportunities for challenge and even more confusion than the current system. 

So what if the government took a leaf out of the 2004 Act and appointed specific bodies to advise on the local plan targets; who would they be and how would this work? 

Firstly, any designated advisory body would have to be resilient to ongoing institutional change as a result of devolution proposals and local government restructuring.

Secondly, their advice would have to be based on a coherent long term strategy and vision that was spatially specific and took account of economic and strategic infrastructure priorities, as well as environmental constraints.

Thirdly, their governance structure would have to be formally constituted, with a strong culture of collaboration between councils and other bodies with a role in supporting place-based growth.

 And finally, their role would have to be cemented through legislation to ensure that their advice had legitimacy within the statutory planning system.

It is vital that local plan housing targets are not simply the result of a computer calculation. The government must give some serious thought as to how national priorities will be translated locally and how local vision and ambition will influence national priorities.  

Introducing a formal advisory stage in the process will help reduce the risk of challenge later on and will speed up the local plan preparation process. If the government gets this bit wrong, we will be no better off than we are now, with long debates around housing numbers. This would mean that the significant disruption to the planning system as a result of the reforms would have all been for nothing.

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

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