Gestation Of An Elephant: Plan Making

Keith Hill, then housing and planning minister, once described the process to Royal Assent of what became the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 as “the gestation of an elephant”. It took 17 months. Given that the average gestation period for an Asian elephant is 18 to 22 months he wasn’t far off.

However, he would have been more accurate using the metaphor in relation to the local plan examination processes that were conceived by way of the Act. Lichfields’ January 2019 statistical report Planned up and be counted: Local Plan-making since the NPPF 2012 concludes that the average examination length under the 2012 NPPF has been 18 months.

My 13 July 2019 blog post Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism attempted to go into some of the reasons for that.

15 years on from the 2004 Act, it is interesting to set what the aspirations of the Government of the time were, as against some examples of current examination processes up and down the country.

Barbara Roche in the House of Commons on 17 December 2002, introducing the Bill for a second reading:

We want to make the system fairer, faster and more predictable and to bring to planning clarity, certainty and more strategic direction.”

Lord Rooker in the House of Lords 6 January 2004:

“…the Bill sets out a reform planning system for this new century that will help us to deliver sustainable communities faster and more fairly—it is no good being faster unless it is fairer.”

What will the Bill do? It simplifies the plan-led process by abolishing the middle tier of planning—the structure plans—that exists in some areas; that is to say, areas where there are county councils and two-tier local government. The new system will have two linked levels of planning: regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. The local development frameworks will be made up each of a set of local development documents, which each authority will be required to prepare. Together, these documents will replace local plans and unitary development plans. They will set out development proposals and have a clear map so that everyone can see what goes where.”

The Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield in response:

In introducing the legislation, the Minister pointed out that the Government seek to make the planning system simpler and quicker, aims which we support. However, we believe that the proposals risk achieving the opposite outcomes. This legislation will unleash regional spatial strategies, local development schemes, local development frameworks, local development documents, action area plans, simplified planning zones and statements of community involvement. How will all these plans and schemes, with their different timetables, consultations, inspections and appeals, make the system more transparent or streamlined? This level of complexity and fragmentation will accelerate public disenchantment with the system. It will lead to uncertainty, delay and planning by appeal.”

Looking back at the scrutiny of the Bill in Public Bill Committee on 23 October 2003 for instance, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, then shadow spokesman for Communities and Local Government, responding to planning and housing minister Keith Hill, also pretty much called it right (but it was what we all said at the time):

I accept a lot of what the Minister said in his long speech about the deficiencies in the existing system, such as the inflexibility as well as the time and difficulty in getting a revision due to the need to revise the whole plan. We feel that the existing system with amendments could have been made to work and that tearing it up and replacing it with a highly complicated new system will make a paradise for lawyers. We will see judicial reviews and all manner of case law created as a result of the Bill, which will add to the delay that it will bring.”

I accept absolutely, however, what the Minister said about the existing system being inadequate, in that it is too slow and that 31 authorities do not have a plan in place. The Committee will not be surprised to learn that a number of practitioners and large developers who use the planning system have been through my offices in the last few weeks. The one thing they all say is, ”For goodness’ sake, we hope that this new system is going to be quicker and clearer, but we don’t think it is.” The test of time will prove that, but we need to ensure that the system will operate.”

Time will tell whether that new system works, but I have a new acronym— CHAOS, which stands for ”Can Hill’s Alternative Objectives Succeed?” I submit that they will not.”

Nothing is black and white in planning. It is not that there is chaos, but, guess what, the system is no quicker or clearer. We no longer have lengthy adversarial local plan inquiries but we are seeing increasingly lawyer-heavy local plan examinations (cross-examination having been replaced by duelling legal opinions), that can turn into utter sagas of successive rounds of inspectors’ preliminary findings, further work, further consultation and rescheduled hearing sessions. Outcomes are unpredictable. There is a lack of statistical transparency across the piece as to how the system is performing.

It took 28 months from submission of the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire local plans for examination on 28 April 2014 to publication of the inspectors’ final report on 3 September 2018. Is that a record?

If so, it won’t be for long. From those plan examinations that I am immediately aware of:

Welwyn Hatfield will soon overtake that. Its plan was submitted for examination on 15 May 2017. During the course of the hearing sessions, the inspector was not satisfied that the council had allocated sufficient housing sites and the council embarked on a further call for green belt sites for possible release but misjudged how long the process would take, or simply failed to manage the process properly, leading the inspector to issue his 8 August 2019 letter to the council. You can sense the frustration in his tone. There is now no likelihood that the examination will be completed by May 2020, as the council had suggested back in March. If the council is not able to revise the timetable, “putting forward realistic time periods and milestones for the conclusion of all the outstanding tasks, including the hearings…or slippage continues to occur [beyond April 2020] then I think we should consider the option of you withdrawing the plan with a view to re-submitting it for Examination when the work is finally completed and there are no obvious soundness issues accompanying it”.

The North Essex Authorities section 1 local plan will run and run. The plan was submitted for examination on 9 October 2017. The inspector was not satisfied with the sustainability appraisal work underpinning identification of three new garden cities and raised concerns as to soundness in his 8 June 2018 letter. He gave the options of removing the garden cities from the plan on the basis of a commitment to an early review, or doing further working and undertaking further consultation. The authorities chose the latter course. Consultation starts on Monday until 30 September 2019 before further hearing sessions are then arranged, according to the inspector’s August 2019 update.

The Windsor and Maidenhead local plan was submitted for examination on 31 January 2018. The council has had to do various strands of further work since the stage 1 hearings which took place last year. Another frustrated inspector – her letter dated 21 June 2019 presses the council for “as much detail as possible” as to the likely implications for the plan of each strand and the number and nature of changes that it is likely to propose:

In making this assessment, please consider whether continuing with the examination of the submitted Plan is the most prudent course of action in light of the work you are doing and of the potential issues reported in our previous correspondence. If you remain of the view that the examination should continue, please set out clearly the steps necessary before hearings can resume along with a realistic timetable for the process. I would also ask you to consider whether a procedural hearing might be a useful means of clarifying the process for all parties and, if so, when it could take place.”

The St Albans local plan was submitted to the Secretary of State for examination in March 2019, following the failure of the previously submitted plan on the basis of the inspector finding that the duty to cooperate had not complied with. The hearing sessions were due to begin in October 2019 but already the examination has run into the sand. The council responded in detail on 31 July 2019 to initial questions from the inspectors. When I say “in detail”, their response as to its approach to proposed green belt releases runs to over 70 pages (an explanation that should surely have been available when the plan was initially submitted). The council has now confirmed that the stage hearing sessions will not be taking place until January and February 2020.

The York local plan was submitted for examination in May 2018, following years of delay and political disagreements. 15 months on, there is no sign of any hearing sessions. Consultation closed on 22 July 2019 in relation to a proposed revised housing need figure and other documents as well as a number of proposed consequent modifications to the plan.

And so it goes on. The North Warwickshire local plan was submitted for examination in March 2018. The inspector’s letter dated 24 June 2019 following the hearing sessions sets out various unresolved issues, the main one being the plan’s reliance on a HIF funding bid of around £58m which has not yet been awarded. The inspector puts forward three possible options for the council and recommends that in the first instance the council pursues option (a), which “may mean suspending the examination for a short period”:

a. await the outcome of the HIF bid and unambiguously identify the likely source(s) of funding for the dualling of the A5; or

b. put forward alternative sites that do not rely on highways improvements for which funding is not certain or unknown; or

c. withdraw the plan

The inspectors’ approach with the West of England joint spatial plan (submitted for examination in April 2018) – to recommend, after the first hearing sessions, withdrawal of the plan, in their letter dated 1 August 2019 – was perhaps a more realistically decisive response than the make-do-and-mend pragmatism that is leading time and time again to these prolonged examination processes, although equally unsatisfactory for the participants. They will provide more detailed reasoning later this month, but the inspectors have a series of concerns as to how the “strategic development locations” in the plan were selected against reasonable alternatives. They question whether further work could be carried out “with the necessary objectivity, rather than being an exercise to justify a predetermined spatial strategy.

It would obviously be better for all concerned if work is done to the necessary standard before plans are submitted. Why isn’t it? The problems can’t all be laid at the door of the 2012 NPPF and the uncertainties arising from the 2012 system of assessing housing need. Or of the prescriptive requirements of strategic environmental assessment.

Is it a lack of guidance, too many fudged compromises pre-examination or simply a system that is not fit for purpose?

Or, to mix mammalian metaphors, is it that, if the system was an elephant, perhaps now it is a camel? For example, crucial components of the 2004 brave new world were (1) the setting of numbers by way of regional spatial strategies (a process that proved slow and difficult, with little public appetite for directly elected regional assemblies), abolished once the coalition government took control in 2010, and (2) the concept that the local development scheme would comprise a variety of development plan documents, being updated at different times, but now encouraged to be bundled back together as local plans and thereby as cumbersome as the complex documents the 2004 system sought to replace. Tinkering has not necessarily improved.

An elephant would never forget the meandering way in which we ended up with our present planning system.

One hump or two?

Simon Ricketts, 17 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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