There has to be a better way
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every time I am thinking of a blog post in my head, Simon Ricketts publishes one first. This week is no exception and Simon Ricketts has gone and done it again with this superb blog post on local plan updates.
This year has been busier than ever at ABC towers with local plan examinations (Runnymede, Tandridge, Sevenoaks, the London Plan, SODC, Uttlesford). And just like the planes coming int- land at Heathrow there are a series of others on the horizon at various stages (Spelthorne, St Albans, Mole Valley, Elmbridge and RBWM to name but a few). However as Sir Ricketts points out in his most recent blog it has not been all plane sailing recently (or flying - mixing my analogies here).
Sevenoaks plan seems to have hit the buffers in fairly spectacular fashion. East Cambridge withdrew their plan after concerns of the magnitude of modifications suggested by the inspector. SODC had to be prevented from withdrawing their plan by the threat of intervention by the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick. RBWM are back to regulation 19 consultation again . Uttlesford has been twiddling it’s thumbs since June and waiting for the inspector to make his comments. Mole Valley pulled their reg 18 consultation due for this autumn due to the impending general election (given they decided to do this back in the summer they obviously knew something we all didn’t!). Who said local plans were boring?
My impression is that it certainly isnt getting any easier to get a local plan into the examination process and out the other side to adoption. However, the stakes are higher than at any other time. The importance of having a five year housing land supply; the housing delivery test; the narrative from central government on housing delivery; all make it more important than it has ever been to have an adopted and up to date local plan.
I want to point out at this stage that whilst I normally find myself on the other side of the table to the council at local plan examinations I do have a high degree of compassion with local authorities. Getting a local plan through the consultation process, submitted for examination, found sound and adopted is probably one of the hardest things a local authority ever has to do. It is fraught with objection from residents, councillors and developers alike. Finding those in support of a substantial increase in housing and other elements within their local area can be particularly tricky. Not only that but it is expensive and resource heavy (at a time when finances are tight within all local authorities).
More than this, the local plan process is fiendishly complex and can leave many in the process feeling disenfranchised. The vast amount of evidence base which accompanies an often voluminous local plan document can be daunting to even the geekiest of planning professionals. Sustainability appraisals, SHMAs, SHLAAs, DTC, topic papers, and numerous technical studies can all make it particularly inaccessible to people wanting to engage in the process (the acronyms alone can be pretty off putting). At several recent local plan examinations, I have noticed that on the first day there might be up to 30 or 40 residents in the public gallery but by day two there were no more than 5 or 10. The general lay person can be particularly put off by the legal submissions, discussion of DTC, SA and other things and the thought of sitting through something like that for fun is not for the faint hearted. At least my industry colleagues and I are paid for the privilege of taking part. There must be a better way to make the examination process more accessible to those wanting to take part who aren’t professionals but have at least attempted to engage constructively.
Like Simon Ricketts, I also have sympathy with the likes of Sevenoaks who have been through a long process only to be told that there are substantial issues of soundness with the Duty to Cooperate that are unlikely to be fixed through modifications to the plan. I can fully appreciate the frustration of the council in putting in the time, effort and resources to get to this point only to be told to start again. The same thing happened in St Albans a few years earlier. Equally, back and forth between the inspector and RBWM since the initial hearing sessions in summer 2018 have led to the council going back to a ‘regulation 19’ style consultation. Again, there must be a better way to avoid this from happening. Surely, PINs should have greater oversight of the regulation 18 and 19 stages of consultation to highlight where potential short comings of the plan might be before it gets to submission stage. Surely there can be greater interaction between the inspector and the local authority on fundamental issues of soundness before the hearing sessions themselves start. At the hearing sessions itself, it would be helpful if inspectors gave feedback on an iterative and ongoing basis rather than the long hiatus we frequently experience between the sessions and receipt of any conclusions. Sevenoaks have been left in a state of limbo whilst they await more detailed thoughts from the inspector on fundamental issues of soundness. The waiting game of several months following hearing sessions is frankly unhelpful for all parties involved.
Finally, several recent plans which have made it through the local plan process have subsequently been subject to immediate challenge through the courts. Waverley’s Local Plan was found sound back in 2018 and firstly taken to the High Court and then later onto the Court of Appeal in 2019, the outcome of which is still awaited.
Similarly, Guildford’s local plan was found sound earlier this year and also immediately challenged by no less than three separate parties. A high court hearing date is still awaited. Although to be fair to Guildford, they aren’t hanging around and are busy getting on with the task of a significant increase in housing delivery.
Often, what exactly goes on behind closed doors down the road in Bristol at PINs or even behind that multi-coloured canopy on Marsham Street at MHCLG remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps if PINs and/or the Secretary of State were more transparent about their processes and thought chain regarding next steps on plans then things might be clearer. PINs must take their own legal advice on soundness of plans? Why can these not be published as part of the ongoing process of the local plan? If it was clearer that PINS and MHCLG were satisfied then maybe further litigation and delays to plans being found sound could be avoided.
Overall, as title of this blog post suggests there has to be a better way. A better way of engaging constructively with participants in the plan process, a better way of inspectors working within that process and a better way of avoiding the complex post local plan litigation that has now become the norm. Getting plans in place is a really important part of the planning system. Much needs to be done to make this process smoother, more effective and a whole lot quicker.
AB - my own thoughts.