Chancellor can look close to home for local plan failure

The Government’s productivity plan, “Fixing the Foundations”, proposes tougher action on local authorities that are taking an unreasonably long time to get their local plans in place, including intervening to get the task completed more effectively. Most of the Chancellor’s Tatton constituents live in Cheshire East and their households will pay council tax (as I do) to that authority. Cheshire East is a particularly extreme example of an authority struggling to produce its local plan. In the absence of an up-to-date local plan, the adequacy of Cheshire East’s housing land supply has been disputed vigorously at appeal and in the courts.

Work started on the new plan when Cheshire East was established in 2009. In May 2014 a plan was submitted to the Secretary of State but the Inspector suspended the local plan examination in November 2014 for more work to be done by the Council on various issues, including the housing land requirement. According to the local press work on the local plan had cost £3.76M up to that point. The Council is due to complete the extra work by the end of July 2015 (with a report to its Cabinet on 21 July) and the examination is scheduled to reconvene in the autumn.

In May 2015 the Council gave a preliminary indication that the extra work showed a need for a major increase in new house building over the level in the submitted plan. The new figures forecast an economic growth rate of 0.7% per annum to 2030 compared with 0.4% per annum in the 2009 forecasts. This is reckoned to equate to 31,400 net new jobs compared with 13,900 in the previous figures. The Council said this means a requirement for 36,000 new homes, up 7,000 on the submitted version of the local plan, but claims sites for 33,000 of these homes have been identified and meeting the new target would not have a “major impact on the Green Belt”.

The actual level of need is still likely to be the subject of dispute when the examination reconvenes and the Inspector could take the view that the changes are so fundamental that they cannot be treated as amendments to the submitted plan. In that case there will be even more delay before a sound plan can be adopted. The additional work will have already consumed staff time at the Council and consultants have been employed. There will probably be a substantial increase on the £3.76M spent before submission of the original plan and an extra £300,000 in external consultancy costs has already been incurred.

The direct cost of preparing and revising the local plan is not the only financial cost of Cheshire East’s approach to plan preparation. In the absence of an up-to-date plan, the Council is conducting a form of “planning by appeal”. The Leader of the Council speaks as if he is fighting a rear-guard action on behalf of the public against marauding speculative developers intent on building houses in unsuitable and unsustainable places. If the Council had a plan in place it would, of course, be easier to guide development to appropriate locations. In any case, some of these schemes have been deemed sustainable on appeal.

Fighting appeals and instigating or defending judicial review cases also has a cost. An FOI request (#809291 and #809565) enquiring into such expenditure over 2012/13, 2013/14 and part of 2014/15 found that the Council had spent £1,014,931 on external advisors helping it with planning appeals and judicial reviews related to housing proposals. Of this total, planning consultants cost £134,465, other experts cost £35,798 and external legal advisors cost £844,768. These figures do not include the cost of the Council’s own planning staff and lawyers working on these cases. Nor do the figures include the costs incurred by the applicants. Those figures are unknown but will be reflected in the developers’ overheads and hence will feed through into the prices charged for new homes and adversely affect new home buyers’ pockets.

It is good that “Fixing the Foundations” is addressing the issue of delay in the preparation of local plans. However, some analysis of the causes of the problem would actually help in finding the right solution. There are a number of questions that need to be addressed – some of which are probably uncomfortable for various parties involved – and these include:
Are local politicians in some areas just too scared of annoying the local electorate to take difficult decisions? In other words, does fear of the “nimbies” make it more attractive to let PINS or the Secretary of State do their job for them?
Does the absence of a strategic framework at regional or sub-regional level make it difficult to determine what the housing land requirement in a particular local authority should be? In other words, is the duty to cooperate doomed to fail?
Do the planners themselves just over-complicate matters?
Are people too afraid of legal challenge?
Does the present local planning framework make sense? Do we really need a Local Plan Strategy that is separate from and goes through different procedures to a Site Allocations and Development Policies Document? Should Supplementary Planning Documents just be for revisions to the plan triggered by changing circumstances?
Does the present approach to public consultation make sense? Can we focus more on the things that matter to people? Has it actually helped the public in Cheshire East that there have been eleven separate stages of consultation to date and that the revisions to the submitted plan will probably require another one?

I hope the Chancellor, in his role of MP for Tatton, will ask his colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to investigate what is going wrong in authorities like Cheshire East so that he can come forward with a coherent set of reforms to the local plan making system. It actually makes more sense to fix the system rather than just focus on a few problem authorities.

Kim Penfold
July 2015