Friday, 2 October 2015
Early reviews: planning pragmatism or cyncial can-kicking?
There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which, having been inspired by a Spinal Tap gig, Homer and Marge buy Bart an electric guitar. A little while later, spotting that his initial enthusiasm has waned, Homer asks Bart why he doesn’t play it anymore…
“I'll tell you the truth”, says Bart. “I wasn't good at it so I quit. I hope you're not mad.”
“Son, come here”, says Homer laughing. “Of course I'm not mad. If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing.”
There is a reason, Reader, for shoehorning a Simpsons reference into the start of this piece, and that is because this exchange often comes to mind upon hearing news of local plan delay. Why is it that according to NLP, in March this year, more than ten years since the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act, 46% of councils had no local plan in place or had adopted one before the NPPF was introduced in 2012? The short answer is that local plans are hard. They are hard technically (the empirical tests of soundness), but more importantly they are hard politically.
Imagine the scene. The newly-appointed leader of a shire authority calls the Head of Planning into their office.
“Right then. We need a local plan in place. What can we do about it?”
“Well, Councillor, as I said to your predecessor, we know that we need to release Green Belt and we know where Green Belt release needs to take place. We can finish the draft plan now, consult on it over the summer, submit it in the autumn, and have it examined next spring.”
“Ok. We could have next year’s local election campaigns dominated by ‘Save Our Green Belt” campaigns, or...?”
“Well. Big City Council is having it’s plan examined in the autumn and we might have to accommodate some of it’s need as well. Plus the household projections will be out in the winter and the recessionary trends may bring our requirement down, so to submit a plan that completely up-to-date we could wait for that and update open space and retail studies in meantime.”
“Splendid. Let’s do that…”
How then to break this cycle of prevarication in the post-RSS world. It is difficult to recall the previous Government deploying any carrots to incentivise LPAs to get plans in place, but the NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development, to apply when development plans were absent or out-of-date, was meant (after the transitional period) as a pretty big stick. NLP described local plan progress since the NPPF as “marginal” so the new Government has unveiled an even bigger stick, which is the prospect of the Government stepping in to get plans in place (“in consultation with local people”) if authorities have not done so by ‘early 2017’. This commitment was made in the Fixing The Foundations document produced by the Treasury in July 2015.
So what will happen when the immovable object of a recalcitrant LPA meets the deadline imposed by the irresistible force of a new Government in ‘jobs and growth’ mode?
The early review.
The compromise, says the pragmatist. The fudge, says the cynic.
According to the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service (PAS), since the NPPF was introduced around a third of the plans that have been found sound have included the early review and it is clear that this is the direction that authorities will be encouraged to take in order to avoid the Government stepping in.
Greg Clark’s letter to the Planning Inspectorate’s chief executive on 21 July 2015 highlighted the “real value in getting a local plan in place at the soonest opportunity, even if it has some shortcomings which are not critical to the whole plan."
This was followed a day later by Brandon Lewis’ ministerial statement emphasising PPG’s reference to early review as an "appropriate way of ensuring that a local plan is not unnecessarily delayed by seeking to resolve matters which are not critical to the plan’s soundness or legal competence as a whole”.
How are shortcomings going to be defined as non-critical, and what are non-critical matters doing in the plan in the first place? Even if something could be descriebd as non-critical, how is an early review reconciled with the NPPF requirement for LPAs to positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area and to take account of longer term requirements, "preferably a 15-year time horizon"? The pragmatist would say that any plan is better than no plan, and it is hard to argue with that, but where is the benefit to anyone, least of all the general public, in having to revisit the big decisions every few years? The NPPF states in relation to Green Belt, for example, that when it is being defined LPAs should satisfy themselves that boundaries will not need to be altered at the end of the development plan period. “We’ve saved our Green Belt!” states the headlines in the local paper. Well, actually…
For the Inspector presented with an early review as the pragmatic solution to cross-boundary issues and local plan timetables that just haven’t aligned, it might very well be justified. The solution to this problem is a return to sub-regional planning, but there is nothing to suggest a statutory return to that any time soon.
For the Inspector though that is presented with an early review as an opportunity to delay the big decision, the early review really should not be justified.
“We accept, Inspector, that the OAN has been shown to be low, but we be propose to review matters after a Green Belt to be undertaken with our neighbours…”
“We accept, Inspector, that our delivery rates might be high, and that our strategic sites may not deliver in their entirety within the plan period, but we would propose to review matters when the five year supply position dips below five years…”
The height of the soundness bar is different for every plan, but it will be possible to distinguish the former justification from the latter. PAS guidance on early reviews highlights that they are “not a panacea for addressing the difficult issues”, but as 2017 approaches one can imagine that the pressure on PINS to accept a broader definition of ‘non-critical’ than might currently be the case will increase.
This might be politically expedient, but if one accepts that one of the reasons for forward planning is the identification and solving of future problems then early reviews do not represent good planning.
So either local planning is made easier, both technically (and Brandon Lewis has formed an 8 strong panel of experts to examine how the production of plans can be simplified), or politically (by de-politicising the big decisions through a return to regional planning), or recalcitrant leaders of recalcitrant authorities can be convinced, like learning the guitar, that the harder something is to do, the more it’s worth doing.
Long live the fudge…