Is the local plan system about to go into meltdown?

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property

There have been a spate of local plans failing, being withdrawn or delayed in recent months. Most recent have been Basildon and Castle Point; the former withdrawing before the examination in public and the latter deciding not to adopt after the inspector had approved it. These on top of Havant Council, which withdrew its plan in March, and then Hertsmere and Welwyn Hatfield pushing their plans publicly into the long grass. Many others are delayed such as Swale, in Kent, which took a step back, deciding to re-do its Reg 18 consultation. It is clear more and more councils are going to go down the same path undermining the local plan process.

It is no secret that the government’s push to achieve 300,000 new homes per year for the next 10 years has not been popular with many Conservative councils which feel they are being unduly put upon, especially in the south east. Many now have their eyes on the 2024 General Election. But  Government has been adamant that this is needed to address the long-running housing crisis, and has been pushing all councils to have an up-to-date local plan by the end of 2023. Recently, however, mixed messages have been coming out of Government.

First, we had comments made by the Prime Minister at last autumn’s Conservative conference about not building on the green belt which many Conservative councillors took at face value. Then there have been various comments about the efficacy of the Standard Methodology for determining housing needs, not helped by the Office for National Statistics issuing revised figures which show population growth plateauing in the coming years. Then there was the Levelling Up White Paper which talks about the need for development on green belt.

Basildon’s discussions with Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC) only last month about its potential withdrawal added to the confusion – whereas DLUHC talked about the Standard Methodology being the start and not the target for housing need, it being up to the council to determine the final figure, the inspector at Basildon was adamant that the OAN determined by the Standard Methodology was the figure to be used.

To avoid a meltdown of the entire process, the new Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP, needs to get a grip. Previous SoS have issued numerous warning letters, even creating a ‘naughty step’ of  councils being watched closely, but has not yet acted in taking away plan-making powers. Although DLUHC has issued ‘directions’ in South Oxfordshire and Thanet, it needs to make an example of a council as this will have impact and will bring other councils in to line.

This is not beyond the realms of possibility as DLUHC did flex its muscles recently – earlier this year it took planning powers away from Uttlesford District Council due to its poor performance – the first time the Department has taken powers away from a council since 2014. Similarly, in his letter to Basildon council ahead of the local plan being withdrawn, the new housing minister, Stuart Andrews MP, reserved the right to issue a direction Essex County Council to make their plan for them.