Feature: Is planning becoming more top-down or more bottom-up as a result of the proposed strategic planning reforms?

By Mark Edgerley, Associate Director, Boyer (part of Leaders Romans Group)

When it was published in May, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill promised to give local voices greater strength in the planning process.

The policy paper which accompanies the Bill (Levelling Up and Regeneration: further information)  states, ‘Local plans will be given more weight…[and] the same weight will be given to…neighbourhood plans prepared by local communities, and spatial development strategies produced to address important planning issues at a more strategic scale.’

Without wishing to sound too cynical, this is typical politics speak: it offers something to everyone and overlooks the implementation. Is it really possible to strengthen all aspects of strategic planning, from neighbourhood planning to mayoral authorities, without the power of one being forfeited to another? And to do so in the context of unprecedented staff shortages in local authority planning departments?

Beginning with the ‘bottom up’, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill proposes to give more weight to neighbourhood plans. In reality the strength of a neighbourhood plan is down to timing: if a neighbourhood plan is produced at a similar time as a Local Plan it should have a substantial impact, as it is based on the same demographics, trends and polices and can share an evidence base; but if a neighbourhood plan is prepared out of step with the Local Plan or where a Local Plan is considered to be out of date, the weight to be given to the neighbourhood plan can often be reduced and therefore does not have the same impact.

Another ‘bottom-up’ policy within the Bill is the inclusion of new ‘street votes’ which would give the residents of individual streets the opportunity to bring forward agreed parameters for the extension or redevelopment of their properties. Providing that they comply with other statutory requirements, the proposals would then be agreed through a referendum. Views from the development sector on this proposed policy are generally dismissive, suggesting that the policy is vague and un-workable and – again – adds considerably to the workload of under-resourced LPAs.

Part of the initiative to strengthen powers more locally includes the removal of the duty to co-operate (the statutory requirement that LPAs consult their neighbouring authorities in the formation of Local Plans).  This could free up substantial amounts of time at Local Plan examinations and seems a sensible proposal. In my experience, a good working relationship generally exists between most local authorities at officer level. But to remove that requirement would pose a difficulty for those local authorities which do not co-operate effectively or experience political unrest.

In place of the duty to co-operate, initiatives will be put in place to enable neighbouring councils to prepare joint spatial plans through a ‘more flexible alignment test’ (to be introduced in a future revision of the NPPF) and ‘voluntary spatial development strategies’ on specific cross-boundary issues. This would result in a less onerous requirement for cross-boundary communication, meaning that where it currently works well, this will continue. But otherwise, the more collaborative approach would be lost. This would be to the detriment of local authorities which have a significant undersupply of either residential or commercial premises which can only be resolved through close communication with a neighbouring authority. It will be particularly interesting to see how this plays out in the case of freeports, which will inevitably require significant amounts of new housing and infrastructure to support the economic benefits anticipated.

Turning to some of the more ‘top down’ features within the Bill, the policy paper states that, ‘To help make the content of plans faster to produce and easier to navigate, policies on issues that apply in most areas (such as general heritage protection) will be set out nationally. These will be contained in a suite of National Development Management Policies, which will have the same weight as plans so that they are taken fully into account in decisions.’

The Bill promises to both ‘streamline’ and to ‘strengthen’ Local Plans and the two are not easily reconciled: under the proposals, those policies which previously could be interpreted slightly differently on a local level, are to sit at a national level.

The basis for this change is that policies – which are likely to include scheduled monuments, flooding, transport and Green Belt policies – are not ‘locally specific’. But I would question this.  Take heritage, for example.  Here in Colchester, the oldest recorded town in the country, heritage issues are very different to that of the new towns which, while undoubtedly having fascinating histories, do not have to consider the preservation of ancient buildings. Urban or rural areas, established or evolving, deprived or prosperous – areas will have very different policies on issues such as the Green Belt. And there are many more examples that can be given.  It is also challenging to understand the relationship between the National Development Management Policies and the Local Plans for an area: which will take precedence and how detailed must the suite of national policies be for them to be truly effective?

Ultimately, of course, the content of the Bill is nothing more than sentiment: we await more information on the many currently unresolved issues as well as the likely practical implementation.

In the meantime, political uncertainty could threaten its passage through Parliament. We have already seen the Online Safety Bill postponed until a new Prime Minister is in place. Furthermore the change in command at DLUHC could result in substantial changes before the Bill achieves Royal Assent next year – assuming, of course, there is no general election and change of administration.  In reality much of what we see before us now will probably be altered quite significantly, and many in the development sector will view that as an opportunity to rectify the many inconsistencies.

Whether the draft Bill is more ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ depends on where you draw the divide between local and national; but if the line appears somewhere between Local Plans and cross-boundary strategic planning, I suggest that those ‘top-down’ features will remain, with more vague proposals such as street votes being dropped.

And ultimately strength is relative. If every element of the strategic planning process is strengthened, it is only the debate and discussion which is given more weight and the ultimate outcome will not necessarily change.