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It’s always better to have a plan – but why do we find it so hard?

01 September 2015 Author: Trudi Elliott

In planning, as in life, it's better to have a plan if you want things to happen. It’s better to have a plan if you want to be master of your own destiny. It's better to have a plan if you are interested in the long as well as the short-term.

The considerable interest in voluntary neighbourhood plans in England demonstrates that communities understand this, and of course the planning systems across the UK are all supposed to be plan-led. So it's a legitimate question to ask why we've apprently found it so difficult to get local plans agreed and in place.

It's not as if we don’t know how to do it, but it is hard work. Local authorities need to get their evidence lined up, assess future trends, engage local communities and businesses, have a strong idea about what they want to achieve locally but also be cognizant of what government wants to achieve nationally. They need to work with their neighbours across boundaries. They need to assess the impact of choices both in the short and long-term, and then make these choices. They need skilled planners and skilled politicians, chief executives who 'get it', and the ability to take communities and businesses with them.

[W]e have to ask: have we made the process of local plan production too hard, complex and resource-intensive, with too much uncertainty for all involved?

To take just one example, the winner of the Excellence in Plan Making Practice category at the RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence - the Plymouth Plan - demonstrates all of this.

But we have to ask: have we made the process of local plan production too hard, complex and resource-intensive, with too much uncertainty for all involved? In a time of constrained public resources, increasing public expectations of involvement, and a pressing need for jobs, homes and better place-making, we still need to make the task more manageable.

The figures bear this out. In Wales local plan coverage is 67 per cent, in Scotland it's 75 per cent, while in Northern Ireland following the transfer of planning powers this year, local authorities' leadership role in plan-making has just begun. In England, the latest figures show that 64 per cent of authorities have an adopted local plan, while 82 per cent have published one.

With regards to England, we have to acknowledge that Government ministers are asking 'where are all the up-to-date plans?', and that their patience is running out. Lots of hard work has gone on since the NPPF was adopted in England, but we are still not there yet. The Chancellor and Prime Minster are not satisfied, as evidenced by the Government's recent Productivity Plan:

“The government will publish league tables, setting out local authorities’ progress on providing a plan for the jobs and homes needed locally. Where they are not, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will arrange for local plans to be written, in consultation with local people. The government will bring forward proposals to significantly streamline the length and process of local plans."

Frankly, the RTPI was encouraged that the UK Government remains committed both to the plan-led system and to community involvement, but understands that the process needs a 'detox'. The message is clear however: delay too long and local politicians and planners will be cut out of the process, and planners and others elsewhere in the system will take over the task (though it is as yet unclear how this will happen).

So we need to look at what we are actually asking planning authorities to do as part of the local plan process, which is to say how it could be made less onerous.

Before the election the RTPI was a joint signatory, along with the Planning Officers’ Society, of a letter to the Secretary of State from the District Councils’ and County Councils’ Networks on improving plan-making and making it more strategic. This identifies some core steps to improve and simplify the local plan process. It suggests ways to reduce the risks and costs for local authorities and developers alike, make plans shorter, and incentivise both local plan-making and cross-boundary planning. It is about choice and flexibility, as well as speed and certainty.

Given the number of plans that have not quite made it over the finish line, the Planning Inspectorate should be able to find plans partially sound. This would help the system to be more accommodating of ‘good’ plans as well as ‘perfect’ plans. It would also allow development to move forward in the interim where a section of the plan needs to be revised. Further, local authorities could have the option of having both a strategic plan, agreed through locally-developed arrangements for suitable geographies, which could be stand-alone or followed by detailed local area plans and a staged plan examination.

Amending the approach to ‘prematurity’ and five year land supply guidance to provide more clarity would also help. Revision of five year supply guidance would support local planning authorities to address housing needs by bringing forward large sites/new settlements which have longer lead-in times, alongside bringing forward sites to meet shorter-term needs through development management and local plans.

If we want to help local authorities make their plan happen we also need to incentivise them by forging links with infrastructure funding via Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and emerging devolution deals, and extend the rewards for planning delivery. This would provide greater encouragement to keep development plans up-to-date, and bring closer together the housing and economic growth aims set out in development plans and the infrastructure planned via LEPs.

We also need to pay close attention to the real drivers behind the issues of speed and commitment. The reasons for slow local plan delivery are complex; in addition to the process challenges, these include a lack of resources and prioritisation, a fear of legal challenge, and the political difficulties inherent in making hard choices. If adopted local plans are not seen to secure the release of resources for schools, health and transport, making the case for them at local level becomes more difficult. Central and local government need to prioritise planning within their spending plans, in order to deliver vital homes, jobs and great places through local plans. And we all need to articulate the benefits of a plan to those who live in the areas they cover.

In short, if you want the right things to happen in the right place and at the right time, it’s always better to have a plan.

About Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Since joining the Institute in 2011, Trudi has led the RTPI’s work on responding to the challenges of planning reform across the UK, and working with our international sister organisations.

Trudi has worked in planning related fields for 20 years as Director of the Government Office for the West Midlands, Chief Executive of Bridgnorth District Council, Chief Executive of West Midlands Regional Assembly and the West Midlands Local Government Association. She has also worked as a lawyer in both the public and private sectors.

Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott

Chief Executive, RTPI