England’s planning system is supposed to be plan-led. Every local authority should have a local development plan to guide development for the next 15 years. In reality, however, plan coverage is sparse. Only about a third of councils have an up-to-date local plan, a figure that is expected to fall to just 22% by the end of 2025.
To try to remedy that, the government is proposing to significantly reform the local plan process – with dramatic changes to both what plans are expected to cover, and how they are prepared. This will give effect to some of the changes of the planning system that are contained in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill once it receives royal assent.
Here’s what you need to know.
Under the new system, local plans will have a much clearer focus. They will simply set out how much and what types of development is needed, and where it should be located. A supporting policies map will identify which policies apply to which parts of the borough. Plans will also be able to set out specific infrastructure requirements and deal with the need for affordable homes.
In the case of housing, for example, plans should identify how many homes need to be built, how they should be spread across the council area, and the specific sites on which development should take place.
Development management policies are currently a large part of local plans. Used to decide if a specific application is acceptable, they typically deal with issues like what development is acceptable in the green belt, how to deal with flood risk and the protection of heritage assets. Often, they just repeat or interpret national policies.
Under the new regime, most of these factors will be dealt with by National Development Management Policies introduced by the government. This should improve clarity and reduce the burden on individual local authorities. Councils will, though, be able to include some local development management policies provided they can show they are really needed.
Every local plan should start with a vision. Currently, those visions are often vague and could apply to almost anywhere. In new-style local plans, the vision is expected to be much more specific. It should be the “golden thread” running through the plan, with every decision – like how much development is needed – clearly linking back to it. As well as connecting into other council strategies – like their over-arching corporate priorities for the borough – the vision should be measurable, allowing the performance of the plan to be monitored.
A range of standard templates will be produced for the various sections of the plan, allowing councils to prepare them more quickly and efficiently. This is also aimed at ensuring consistency between plans. For example, policies maps will have standard colours and symbols. There might also be a template contents page – to show what plans are expected to include – and even suggested wording and presentation for some policies.
The evidence required to support local plan policies will also be standardised, in terms of both what information is required and how it is produced and presented.
As well as speeding up the process, these uniform data standards are intended to smooth the transition to digital plans, where it is crucial that information is presented in a consistent way.
Before a local plan can finally come into force, it must go through a process known as examination. This is effectively a public inquiry to confirm that the plan reflects planning law, policy and guidance - and can last several years.
A number of changes are being proposed to speed up the examination process. Less notice will need to be given of the examination, only the most significant changes to plans will need to be consulted on, and it will no longer be possible to pause examinations for more than six months.
To help planning inspectors ensure plans have been properly prepared, they normally start the examination by asking for written answers to a series of questions about the plan. Currently, everyone involved in the examination – including local residents, developers and landowners – are allowed to submit answers. This produces huge amounts of information for inspectors to read, and often just repeats what has already been included in consultation responses. To allow inspectors to consider the responses more quickly, it is therefore proposed that only the local authority will be allowed to provide written answers - everyone else must rely on what they have previously submitted.
One of the key reasons local plan coverage is so poor is that they take so long to produce – an average of seven years. Under the new system, the plan-making process is expected to take just 30 months.
In part, that will be achieved through the streamlining and standardisation of the plan. However, there are also changes to the process itself. An overview of the different stages is shown in figure 1 below – more detail as to what is required at each stage will be prepared by the government.
Figure 1: The new local plan process
One of the most eye-catching changes is the introduction of three “gateway” checks. This will be overseen by a planning inspector who will check the local authority’s progress and help them deal with any particularly challenging issues. A final gateway check will confirm whether the plan is legally and policy compliant and can be submitted for examination. The intention is that this assistance and progress monitoring will prevent plans from going too far wrong, and avoid the protracted examinations which are currently all too common as inspectors allow time for councils to correct procedural errors.
Once adopted, local plans will have to be updated at least every five years – currently they only have to be updated “if necessary.” This should ensure plans stay up-to-date.
This isn’t a true 30-month period – you will see that councils are required to carry out some work before the time period begins – but it would still represent a significant improvement on the current situation. However, it isn’t currently clear what would happen if those dates are missed.
Although not expected to be used routinely, new Supplementary Plans will be introduced to allow councils to respond quickly to changing circumstances. For example, they could be used to guide policy for an unexpected regeneration opportunity. They could also be used to introduced Design Codes for an area.
In some ways they are a replacement for Supplementary Planning Documents which are currently used in this way. However, they will need to go through their own examination process and will take on more importance in deciding planning applications as a result. They will also be limited to covering either a single site, or two or more sites which are close to each other.
The current local plan process is sprawling, complex and expensive – attempting to improve it is to be welcomed. There is much to be admired in these proposed reforms and, while detail remains to be confirmed, they are heading in the right direction. We would think that though – our managing director, Paul Smith, was involved in the development of the proposals.
While these are still just proposals and could change before they are finally introduced next year, the new system will still leave plenty of opportunities for land to be promoted through the process with the aim of having it specifically identified for new development. For landowners, that can dramatically increase the value of their land.
That’s where The Strategic Land Group can help. We can use our own expertise and financial resources to steer your site through the process, all at our cost and risk. With planning permission in place, we’ll even find a developer to buy the land. Our fee only becomes payable once the site has been sold to a developer so if we don’t succeed, it doesn’t cost you anything.
If you think your site could be suitable for housing development, get in touch today for a free, no obligation consultation.