Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Revoke in haste. Repent at leisure.

"Baldrick, have you no idea what irony is?" asked Blackadder. "Yes, it's like goldy and bronzy only it's made out of iron".

As well as being a light-hearted way to start a blog this could also be a light-hearted way to start a conversation with Eric Pickles, which, all being well, I may get the chance to do one day, because I would very much like to ask him if he sees the irony inherent in the Housing & Planning Bill (H&PB) and it's objective of ensuring that all councils have local plans in place by 2017.

Back in July 2010, Readers will recall, within months of becoming the Coalition Government's Secretary of State (SoS) for Communities & Local Government, Mr Pickles revoked Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) on the basis that they represented 'Soviet-style planning' and 'Stalinist top-down regional targets' that must go in favour of 'more local decision-making'.

Little can Mr Pickles have imagined that a parliamentary term later a Conservative Government's response to stubbornly poor local plan coverage (65% in November 2015), would be a series of potential interventions in the local plan process that Joseph Stalin himself would be pleased with. Clauses 129–133 of the Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords on 26 January 2016, include the following provisions:
  • Clause 129 would enable the SoS (or the Mayor of London and presumably the future Mayor of Greater Manchester) to direct a LPA to amend its, LDS, which sets out the DPDs that the LPA intend to produce and the timetable for their production.
  • Clause 130 would enable the SoS, in instances where someone has been appointed to conduct an independent examination of a LPA's development plan, to give directions to that person.
  • Clause 131 would enable the SoS to intervene in the development plan process and direct that the plan be submitted to him or her for approval.
  • Clause 132 supplements the powers that the SoS currently has to amend development plans where he or she believes there to have been a failure in the process of preparing the plan.
  • Clause 133 would enable the Mayor of London or a combined authority to prepare a development plan document for a LPA within their area where that LPA has not done so already.

Mr Pickles would have to agree that there is more in here for fans of the 'top-down' approach than for fans of the 'local' approach, but then he would hopefully acknowledge that the local approach is not working particularly well. NLP looked at local plans and housing requirements in March 2015 and concluded that:
  • Of 126 submitted or examined plans since the NPPF was published in March 2012, 20 of the 62 plans that have been found sound require an immediate or early review, the majority being to address issues of housing needs and supply.
  • Of 43 plans undergoing the examination process at that time 14 required modifications relating to housing numbers.
  • 21 of the 126 submitted plans were withdrawn, 12 because of issues relating to housing numbers and 7 because of a failure to meet the duty-to-cooperate (DtC).

They may not have been perfect (but then what is, dear Reader?), but RSSs, prepared by Regional Assemblies, identified housing needs and apportioned that need across market areas for approval by the SoS via the Planning Inspectorate and were then used as a framework for local development documents.

It would surely be better for these matters of housing need and cooperation to be dealt with at the outset of the local plan process by way of regular OBR forecasting and requirements set at the housing market area level (which accounts for two of the ten very good suggestions for increasing housing supply in England in this piece by Glen Bramley), but there is nothing to indicate that planning policy or guidance will be heading back in this direction. So what then chance of getting to 100% local plan coverage?

For the longer term it is encouraging that, slowly but surely, some of the regional and sub-regional frameworks for planning are being put back together. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework will, for example, help LPAs like Bury, Rochdale and Salford address the housing need and DtC issues that scuppered their respective draft local plans. These are bottom-up endeavours, though, and the influence of Mr Pickles over Whitehall can perhaps still be felt in the absence of an insistence that the devolution of powers and resources to city-region groupings be contingent on adequate planned housing numbers.

For the shorter term the recommendations of Brandon Lewis' panel of experts, tasked with examining 'measures or reforms helpful to ensure efficient and effective production of local plans', are awaited and are likely to consider housing need and improving the DtC. Will that though be enough to resolve issues like those in Birmingham and Oxford, where a large housing shortfall needs to be distributed across an administratively fragmented housing market area? It seems more likely than not that the SoS will be utilising Clauses 129-133 of the H&PB in these areas, and trying to resolve in months issues that a LPA and it's neighbours will have been debating for years.

All of which, after using a Blackadder reference to break the ice, could be the basis of a pretty good discussion with Mr Pickles, and as it drew to a close, and perhaps with his guard down after a G&T or two, I would ask him one more question. Were you wrong to scrap RSSs? I would suggest to Mr Pickles that local plan coverage would be higher now than 65% had they not been revoked. Mr Pickles, I suspect, would probably say that we shall never know.