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03 Feb
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2017 - The Year of the Local Plan?

Will Government requirements for 2017 change the approach to adopting Local Plans?

The proposed Housing White Paper may eventually give the necessary detail, but if the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) remains insistent that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) should ‘produce’ a Local Plan by early 2017, then we may see a stream of LPAs belatedly pressing ahead.

A legally compliant, up to date Local Plan (based on robust evidence, a ‘duty to co-operate, and so on) is fundamental in a ‘plan led’ system. However, as of 31st December 2016, only 40% of LPAs have a Local Plan that is consistent with the NPPF (i.e. examined and adopted following the NPPF in March 2012). Additionally, the majority of post-NPPF adopted plans are strategic and rely on out of date site allocations – less than 20% of LPAs have a fully up to date local plan, insomuch as having adopted strategic policies and site allocations.

The need for a remedy to the lack of Local Plans is clear, but so is the scale of the challenge.

The aforementioned DCLG 2017 deadline raises a number of questions:

  • What is the remedy if an LPA does not have sufficiently progressed Local Plan;
  • How will DCLG resource the additional Local Plan hearings, or preparation of the Plan on behalf of an LPA (against a backdrop of a need for more Inspectors); and
  • Potentially crucially, will DCLG take a more lenient view on weaker plans that would otherwise be recommended for further work, in order to meet the 2017 target?

The latter is particularly interesting and has longer term implications.

For example some emerging plans could be weak, with flaws only coming to light at the Local Plan hearing. Despite this, the Local Plan target may mean Inspectors recommend adoption, but with an early review.

In a recent case an Inspector advised that a submitted Local Plan would have a limited effect after 3 to 5 years. Such a fundamental flaw would have meant a suspension of the hearings, or withdrawal, to address the issue. However, to meet the DCLG deadline, an early review policy has been suggested which would bite almost immediately following adoption. The plan in question appears to be progressing.

An early review may provide a short term solution, but is by no means a silver bullet. Additionally, we are yet to see if early review policies, where used to date, have been adhered to or whether they are simply used as an escape route for otherwise deficient plans.

This approach must be used very sparingly and should include the necessary checks and balances, for example requiring the submission of the Local Plan Review by a certain target date with a clear proportionate sanction for the LPA not achieving the target. This would ensure the LPA remains responsible for their own fate and is not given an easy get out.

It’s reasonable to assume that the Housing White Paper will restate the understandable critical importance of Local Plans. Therefore, it seems likely that only where plans are fatally flawed, for example failing the ‘Duty to Co-Operate’ test (a hurdle some authorities have fallen at), will the severe approach of Plan withdrawal be recommended.

Nevertheless, it is essential that Local Plans (whether subject to early review or otherwise) set an ambitious but clear, robust and deliverable long term strategy and do not simply aim to ‘get over the line’.

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