Thursday, 9 August 2018

Mr Brokenshire's Big Intervention Stick

Local plan coverage has been, is, and will probably always be poor. Or at least if not poor then still some way from complete. Anybody who harbours aspirations otherwise has probably never had any contact with the local plan process. The obstacles to be overcome between an Issues & Options consultation and adoption are technically byzantine (though always surmountable with time), administratively burdensome (also surmountable with time) and, often three years out of four, politically charged (sometimes insurmountable despite long-periods of time). The big ones, Green Belt and the meeting of unmet needs across administrative boundaries, were identified as the key barriers to plan progress in a paper from NLP in 2017.
The tectonic plates that form a plan’s evidence base constantly shift beneath a Head of Planning’s feet and the political pendulum that determines the national policy framework constantly swings above their head. If a LPA does reach the finish line, then it’s reward in little time afterwards will be a reason to think about going around again. If though a LPA has not got a plan then there is always an excuse for that council’s controlling political group to delay having to produce one.
In those circumstances, when faced with a recalcitrant leadership, what can anybody (be it the Head of Planning, a council’s opposition group, the development community or the Government) do about it? The answer hitherto has been precious little.
The 2012 NPPF’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ may have jolted a few LPAs into life when they realised that well-located, ‘sustainable’, non-Green Belt sites were being approved at appeal where a plan was out-of-date and / or a five-year housing land supply could not be demonstrated. Interestingly though those plans were probably not put in place any quicker because of the resources being deployed at the same time to contest appeal after appeal. The presumption though does not trouble LPAs with a high proportion of Green Belt because no matter how old the plan or how poor the land supply not even the most bullish Land & Planning Director will trouble them.
If a LPA really does want to keep kicking the can down the road who or what can stop them?
When the then Housing & Planning Minister Brandon Lewis made a Written Ministerial Statement on the subject of local plans in July 2015 it was becoming apparent that, five years after the Open Source Planning green paper that set the somewhat optimistic tone for the Conservative’s subsequent localism-led planning policy, some ungrateful LPAs had not seized the opportunity generously provided by the gallant Mr Pickles and his brave abolishment of the top-down Regional Spatial Strategies. Lewis told those LPAs were not seizing control, amending their Green Belts and determining their housing requirement all by themselves that if they did not do so by early 2017 then the Government would intervene and write a local plan (in consultation with local people of course) for them. Fare thee well localism. Welcome muscular localism.
Like a parent pushed to the limits of their patience (‘if you do that one more time…’) early 2017 brought with it not intervention, alas, but, in a Housing White Paper, a further threat of intervention and reference to new powers in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill to do so (The Pickles Paradox).
It was November 2017 before the Government got really cross and Secretary of State Sajid Javid named and shamed 15 LPAs who would be called to come and sit outside his headteacher’s office. Basildon, Brentwood, Bolsover, Calderdale, Castle Point, Eastleigh, Liverpool, Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Northumberland, Runnymede, St Albans, Thanet, Wirral and York (12 of the 15, it should be noted, have Green Belt with their administrative boundaries) were written to because, Javid pointed out, they had yet to adopt a plan since the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act let alone the NPPF. They were invited to reply before the end of January 2018 setting out the reasons why.
Some of the 15 were heading in the right direction anyway and Mr Javid accepted the apologies and promises to do better from twelve of them. In letters in March 2018 Javid put everybody apart from Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral on probation, but made clear that commitments to publish draft plans by the end of September 2018 would be monitored and intervention would reconsidered if pledges were not honored.  For the three remaining in detention, ‘the Chief Planner and a team of experts would be sent in.’
The wielding of Mr Javid’s big stick appears to have worked because there has been movement at all 15. Six have published advanced draft plans since November and four have been submitted for examination. The other five will not have published a draft plan by the end of September, but that is undoubtedly a lower number than would have been the case without the threat of intervention last November and the local and national scrutiny on the workings of those councils that the letter created.
The important thing now, especially with Sajid Javid having been replaced in MCHLG by James Brokenshire, is for that national scrutiny to be maintained. The issues that will have prevented these plans coming forward over the last ten, fifteen or twenty years have not gone away. If Green Belt was a political football at the last local election then it can be assumed with confidence that it will a political football at the next local election as well. A draft local plan is a sign of progress, but momentum needs to be maintained.
Wirral illustrates perfectly the issues facing policy officers who might actually relish being hit with the intervention stick. It has been apparent for a long time that significant Green Belt release will be required and a 2016 ‘housing needs and supply’ consultation reinforced that. The brouhaha that followed the outcome of that consultation is summarised here and it was no surprise that the Council’s proposed response to the November 2017 letter was to continue with a two year ‘development option review’ and submit a plan in January 2020. To get from there to an agreement from Cabinet to consult on the release of specific sites from the Green Belt in less than six months can be attributed to the encouragement (provided to officers) and pressure (applied to members) from Government.
The consensus is fragile though. Half of Wirral’s Cabinet are up for re-election next year; one of the them has actually launched a petition against the local plan, and the leader of the 21 Conservatives on the council has made clear that a Conservative council will not build on Wirral’s Green Belt (somehow). A lot of water will need to flow under a number of bridges between the consultation on releasing specific sites from the Green Belt and Wirral adopting a local plan.
In the absence of offering any real carrots to LPAs to get local plans in place (‘devo deals’, as Local Plan Export Group recommended, should be the mechanism to do so) and no real appetite within Government to grapple with what every planner in the country can see are the barriers to plan progress, intervention, or at least the threat of intervention, is, realistically, the only way of moving things along.
Let us hope that Mr Brokenshire seeks a progress report from the 15 at the end of September 2018 and continues to deploy the Chief Planner and teams of experts if necessary. If those on the naughty step at the minute and indeed any other LPA to whom can-kicking might be an appealing option think that the new headteacher is less strict than the previous one then the outcome will be all too predictable.

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