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RTPI praise for Local Plans Expert Group report

16 March 2016

President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Phil Williams, said:

“The RTPI welcomes the Local Plans Expert Group report  which powerfully describes  the problems facing plan making in England. It offers bold solutions to overcome them and explains why it is vital to do so”.

IMG_1596“We are pleased that the report has incorporated many RTPI suggestions. We want to see shorter, more proportionate and responsive, local plans and a greater focus on planning collaboratively across boundaries”.

“Overall, the conclusions of the report will provide planners with greater certainty, for example, by allowing for judgements to be made on simpler evidence bases, and being subject to more flexible tests of soundness by the Inspectorate. We are also very pleased that the group has acknowledged the role that central government can play by taking steps to incentivise the development of growth points to ensure that housing needs are met”.

“I am particularly grateful to those members who served in a personal capacity on the review group and the contribution they have made to the profession through this important work.”

Report Commentary 

Local Plans2

RTPI Policy Officer, Harry Burchill writes: The report makes a wide range of recommendations about how to improve quality and speed of local plan production; from the fundamental to the very detailed, e.g. linking plan making to devolution deals, to taking straightforward steps to make plans simpler and more accessible to the public. There are significant technical changes proposed, which revolve around housing assessment methods. We are pleased to see that a number of recommendations by the RTPI have been taken on board, and believe these will mostly be welcomed by the planning profession, particularly by those individuals faced with the extremely challenging task of producing local plans.  However, we are keen to stress that any changes should be carefully considered in the context of current plan production, which is why we are also pleased that the group have said that whilst some changes can be made with immediate effect, a phased approach to others will be necessary, in order to ensure current plan production is not stalled.

Key Recommendations

Objectively Assessed Housing Needs

  • Government to commission a statistical assessment of HMA boundaries based on the last census and to strengthen guidance in the NPPG that outcome should be applied in future local plans, with boundaries adjusted to local authority boundaries for simplicity. In the long term, Government should also work towards harmonising economic and housing planning boundaries to aid coordination.

RTPI response:

We believe this to be a reasonable recommendation given the problem highlighted in para 7 of our Written evidence to the expert group on the legal interpretation of national guidance.

Defining Local Plan Requirements

  • Significant reductions in elements of the local plan evidence base, but a proportionate Assessment of Environmental Capacity should be an important part of plan making. The NPPG should be strengthened to ensure a robust application of the NPPF’s expectation that needs will be met unless the authority can demonstrate that to do so will cause significant adverse effects.
  • Government to remove uncertainty about balance to be struck between meeting identified need  against the environmental impacts they may cause,  and to confirm the legitimacy of applying the tests set out in the NPPF to ensure that needs are met up to the point where the adverse effects of doing so can be shown to outweigh the benefit of meeting the need.
  • Government should consider the extent to which it should enable and incentivise the establishment of growth points to complement the capacity of local plans on the basis that local plans (particularly in London and the South East) may not enable the full scale of housing need to be met.

RTPI response:

The instability caused by conflicting messages of evidence are a key barrier to local plans, and our Written evidence to the expert group reflected this call for a more proportional approach to be considered.

Working Across Boundaries

  • Revisions to the soundness tests of the NPPF and NPPG to emphasise the expectation that needs should be met, with authorities who do not plan to meet their own needs identifying how they expect those needs to be satisfied elsewhere. This would necessarily involve authorities applying to their neighbours to meet their unmet needs and, where necessary, engaging in representations on their neighbours’ plans in order to test the capacity of adjacent authorities to meet needs.
  • Where authorities have failed to reach sufficient agreement on meeting and distributing housing needs by March 2017, the Government should take and use powers to direct the preparation of a high level Joint Local Plan for the HMA or a suitable geography, such as transport corridors, within a prescribed timetable

RTPI response:

We are pleased to see the key themes from our paper, “Strategic Planning: Effective Cooperation for Planning Across Boundaries”, reflected in these recommendations and that the expert groups report specifically refers to our recommendations in para S20 of their report.

Devolved PowersDevolution Logo

  • The report strongly recommends to Government that it attaches precise conditions to any successful devolution bid, requiring a commitment to plan positively to meet objective housing needs and a commitment to produce a plan for the combined area. It further recommends that individual authorities within a combined authority area should receive sign off from the combined authority that their emerging plan addresses the Duty to Cooperate before their plan can progress.

RTPI response:

We were pleased to be referenced in relation to this recommendation (para 6.4), which we set out in our Written evidence to the expert group. Linking devolution deals to commitments to good planning and housing delivery as well as economic growth crucial to good planning and equitable distribution of reward. More detail can be found in our paper “Strategic Planning: Effective Cooperation for Planning Across Boundaries.”

ClockIncentives for Timely Plan Preparations

  • Government should review the role of financial incentives to stimulate efficient and effective plan making  but local authorities bidding for funds should expect to have an up to date plan in place.
  • Any incentive for New Homes Bonus allocations should not inadvertently condone the poor plan making performance of authorities who have not put in place a post NPPF compliant local plan.
  • In addition to the Government’s proposals that it may intervene to arrange for local plans to be written in consultation with local people, it recommends that the stimulating effect of that announcement can be enhanced by:-

a)      Introducing a statutory duty on local authorities to produce and maintain an up to date local plan;

b)      making clear that authorities who have not submitted a plan for examination by March 2017 will not be able to rely on their existing policies for the supply of housing, which will be considered to be out of date;

c)       confirming that the same consequences arise where a local authority fails to undertake an early review of its local plan in circumstances where a Planning Inspector has recommended such a review, so that such a local plan would be considered to be time expired and out of date if the review has not been submitted within the timescale indicated by the Inspector;

d)      the Government should abandon the principle of “saved policies”, which attach weight to historic local plans.

  • Comparable measures should be put in place for those authorities who have a post 2004 plan but who do not have an up to date local plan, in the sense that they do not have a plan which has been examined since the publication of the NPPF in March 2012. For those authorities a deadline of March 2018 (six years after the NPPF) should be set.

RTPI response:

We are particularly pleased to see the group urge Government to consider incentives to encourage delivery, as the RTPI have done in Recommendation 9 of our policy paper on Delivering large scale housing 

Policy Changes

  • To counter unintended consequences of policy creep the NPPF should be reviewed only every five years; the NPPG should only be changed periodically (for instance, every 6 months); and proposed changes to the NPPG should be subject to scrutiny by a technical working group before the changes are made in order to reduce the prospect of unintended consequences.

RTPI response:

Paragraph 6 to 11 of our Written evidence to the expert group drew attention to the instability that “on the hoof” policy changes were causing, and so we recommended that a different approach to changes to policy be adopted. The recommendations here are entirely reasonable and supported by RTPI.

Local PlansLocal Plan Process

  • To address a fault which means local plans cannot modify a plan in response to public consultation of its first draft by changing regulation so that the first stage of engagement (Regulation 18) should principally enable the community to express their views about their vision for the area and their views on all relevant issues; and a local authority can change its published plan in response to public consultation without undertaking a further round of plan making.
  • A series of further measures which would reduce a number of the more burdensome and unnecessary obligations on the plan maker including:- a significantly shorter, standardised approach to calculating housing needs (see above); a much tighter definition of evidence which it is necessary to gather in preparing the plan – limiting evidence to that which is strictly necessary to meet legal requirements; clear advice that the preparation of a simple Sustainability Statement auditing the local plan against the NPPF would be sufficient to meet the legal requirement for Sustainability Appraisal – thereby dramatically reducing the burden of one of the most time consuming aspects of plan making; scoping back local plans so that they deal only with strategic issues which cannot be addressed in Neighbourhood Plans and other documents; and amending the soundness tests so that the local plan need only be “an appropriate strategy”, thereby providing much greater local control over the vision and strategy within the local plan.

 Local Plan Content

  • Local plans could undoubtedly be shorter (probably around 50 pages) but does not recommend that this is regulated; neither does it recommend the use of template policies. Each local plan should be a distinctive view from its community about the future of its area.
  • A list of requirements for a local plan and a list of the necessary evidence base, to assist plan makers.
  • Recommendations that would limit the scope of local plans to strategic issues, thereby creating a clear role for Neighbourhood Plans or (if neighbourhood planning is inactive in an area) for secondary local plan documents and brownfield registers.
  • The NPPF to make clear that it is not necessary for authorities to prepare a single local plan, which covers every issue – rather, staged local plans, which defer local issues to Neighbourhood Plans would be appropriate.
  • Local plans do not need to repeat development management policies set out in the NPPF. Instead, recommend a simple formula of words, which can incorporate those policies without repetition.
  • Detailed recommendations in relation to the way in which local plans can be structured and the way in which they deal with infrastructure and their interface with the Community Infrastructure Levy.
  • Local plans must generate the confidence that they are planning sustainability over the full local plan period (at least 15 years). The simplification of housing issues means that local plans should also engage with those matters of greatest concern to local communities including biodiversity, heritage, place making and quality of life.

RTPI response:

In our Written evidence to the expert group, we drew attention to our joint statement with the DCN/CCN and POS, which states quite categorically that plans should be made shorter by, amongst other measures, reducing the burden of evidence required to a more proportionate level. We also suggested measures to simplify development management polices. This is therefore very much welcomed by the institute.

Implementation and delivery

  • A definitive approach to calculating five years housing land supply but, even more importantly, a process for annual monitoring reports to be signed off by an independent examiner, with the result being treated as the definitive years supply calculation for that local authority area until the following monitoring report. Additionally, we propose that the housing requirement adopted in the local plan is treated as the definitive basis for the calculation for a period of at least three years commencing at the date at which the Inspector concluded that the housing requirement was sound
  •  In those circumstances where the annual monitoring process identifies that there is no five year supply, authorities should have in place policy mechanisms to release land identified as suitable in principle for development within their SHLAAs, subject to normal development management policies.

RTPI response:

The RTPI have repeatedly argued that current arrangements are too restrictive and plans should be able to look beyond 5 years supply and take a longer term approach to delivering housing , most recently highlighted in our response to the national planning policy consultation (para 36)

Presentation, access and style

  • Shorter, more publicly accessible plans and for the better use of online technology, with best practice examples highlighted. This includes the approach known as “propositional planning” in which communities are engaged with clear illustrations of the consequences of proposed plans in order to stimulate easier engagement.

RTPI response:

We are pleased to see, in para 12.1, the RTPI awards identified in the report as an indicator of what good plans look like. We hope that examples endorsed by the Institute will continue to inspire good practice in plan making. The recommendation put forward by the group seems entirely reasonable.

Minerals and Waste

  • The NPPG should be amended to ensure that sufficient weight is attached to the outcome of the Minerals and waste local plan process, in order to assist effective plan making. Minerals and Waste local plans would also benefit from a large number of the recommendations the group have made for general local plans

Transition

  • A number of the recommendations can be introduced with immediate effect with benefit to the plan making system. Others need a more phased introduction are all commended to the Government

RTPI response:

We welcome the importance the Group has given to the issue of transition.

More information

Read the RTPI's written evidence to the Local Plans Expert Group.

Read the Local Plans Expert Group report.