Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism

The Secretary of State sent a curious letter to the Planning Inspectorate on 18 June 2019, which was only placed on the Government’s website on 28 June 2019. (The delay may have been to allow PINS to update its procedure guide for local plan examinations).

It is in two parts:

Sharing information with MHCLG

The Secretary of State reminds inspectors and local authorities that Parliament has given him “a number of powers that, where justified, allow [him] to become involved in plan making. This includes powers to notify or direct the Inspectorate to take certain steps in relation to the examination of the plan or to intervene to direct modification of the plan or that it is submitted to [him] for approval”. He states that he is “frequently asked by those affected by the plan making process to consider use of these powers and must look at each of these requests on a case by case basis. This includes requests from Members of Parliament, who have a legitimate interest in the progress of local plans in their areas and are accountable to their electorates. I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate’s published Procedural Practice encourages MPs to participate in the examination hearing sessions even if they did not make a representation and I would encourage their involvement in this way”.

He considers that more can be done by way of sharing of factual information so that his officials can advise him as to whether use of his powers would be appropriate.

He sets out two changes to the arrangements for sharing of information between MHCLG and PINS with immediate effect:

1. On a quarterly basis the Planning Inspectorate will publish a report that sets out the plans that are expected to be submitted for examination in the following 6-month period. I ask that this report be published on the Planning Inspectorate website. Clearly this can only be as good as the information received from local authorities, and I am arranging for this to be drawn to the attention of local authorities to remind them of the importance of giving clear timetables;

2. The Planning Inspectorate will share all post-hearing advice letters, letters containing interim findings, and any other letters which raise soundness or significant legal compliance issues, as well as fact check reports, with my department on a for information basis, at least 48 hours in advance of them being sent to the Local Planning Authority

In relation to the second change, can I ask that we have on one website each of these documents as soon as they can be made public. There is a fundamental lack of transparency in the ad hoc way that this information is currently made available only on the relevant examination page of the particular local authority’s website, meaning that ensuring consistencies of approach, reviewing trends and learning from similar circumstances is currently very difficult indeed.

And what local plans have escaped to adoption before the relevant MP could ask the Secretary of State to apply the knife? Local Plan Intervention: a question of MP influence published by the House of Commons Library in July 2017 summarises the four times since the 2012 NPPF (to July 2017) when the Secretary of State had used his powers of intervention: Bradford, Birmingham, Maldon and North Somerset. In all but Maldon the intervention was at the request of an MP. I note that the MPs’ interventions only achieved delay to eventual adoption of the plan, whereas the call in of the Maldon plan was in circumstances where an inspector had found that the whole plan was unsound, due to its policies on traveller provision, the council’s chief executive successfully sought call in of the plan and the plan was eventually adopted.

Aside from the Secretary of State’s sabre rattling in relation to authorities that have not made sufficient progress with their plans, which I will come to in a moment, what interventions have there been since July 2017? Do we discern a continuing trend? Wouldn’t it be nice to have the information in one place so that potentially straight-forward questions such as that could be resolved. Is MPs’ interest more often in the “progress of local plans in their areas” or is it in being seen to be pressing in relation to those issues of most concern to their electorate eg retention of green belt and/or opposition to housing?

In fact, as I was typing this, in pinged a Planning magazine online update High Court allows legal challenge to Guildford local plan to proceed to full hearing (12 July 2019, behind paywall):

In May, Sir Paul Beresford, the Conservative MP for Mole Valley, wrote to several Guildford councillors expressing outrage at the “astonishing way” the plan had been adopted in the purdah period before local elections.”

Another Conservative MP on the “anti-housing in the Green Belt” campaign trail. Was this local plan perhaps “the one that got away” as far as MHCLG is concerned?

So how has the more general sabre rattling, in relation to delays in plan preparation, been going? My 18 November 2017 blog post Local Plan Interventions referred to the 31 January 2018 deadline given to 15 local authorities to set out any exceptional circumstances as to why they had failed to produce a local plan, to justify the Secretary of State not intervening in their local plan processes.

On 23 March 2018 the Secretary of State made a statement to the House of Commons, indicating that his attention had narrowed to three authorities: Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral:

In three areas, Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral, I am now particularly concerned at the consistent failure and lack of progress to get a plan in place and have not been persuaded by the exceptional circumstances set out by the council or the proposals they have put forward to get a plan in place. We will therefore step up the intervention process in these three areas. I will be sending a team of planning experts, led by the Government’s Chief Planner, into these three areas to advise me on the next steps in my intervention.

I have a number of intervention options available to me which I will now actively examine. As it may prove necessary to take over plan production, subject to decisions taken after the expert advice I have commissioned, my Department has started the procurement process to secure planning consultants and specialists to undertake that work so it can commence as quickly as possible. My Department will also be speaking to the county councils and combined authority with a view to inviting those bodies to prepare the local plan in these three areas as well as exploring the possibility with neighbouring authorities of directing the preparation of joint plans

Tough talk but it then took another ten months before intervention letters were finally sent to Wirral and Thanet on 28 January 2019.

The position in Castle Point is a mystery to me. Councillors voted down a proposed draft of the plan in December 2018. The council’s website simply says this:

A Special Council Meeting was held in November 2018, whereby the Council resolved to not proceed with the Pre-Publication Local Plan. As a result of this meeting the Council are in discussions with the Minstry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in regards to the next steps. “

But no intervention letter yet.

Sadly, if I worked for an authority I would presently be more concerned about the risk of the Secretary of State intervening in relation to a plan that has passed its examination and is about to be adopted than the risk of his intervening due to the lack of a plan in the first place or due to the authority’s withdrawal of a draft plan. We are seeing various authorities taking decisions to withdraw their submitted plans (for example East Cambridgeshire and Amber Valley) because they find the inspector’s findings, usually seeking further development allocations or additional housing numbers, unpalatable and there is still such slow progress on the part of many authorities. Surely this is the scourge – not plans which are within a process that has been refined by independent examination, the outcome of which happens to contradict the views of an MP, now encouraged to participate in hearing sessions “even if they did not make a representation”? In any world other than one in which backbench MPs have to be pacified, isn’t this madness?

The importance of being pragmatic

On the subject of pragmatism…

The second part of the Secretary of State’s 18 July letter comprises this final paragraph which I have already seen trotted out at an examination by one authority seeking to paper over the cracks:

Finally, on the substance of plan examinations, I wanted to stress to inspectors – who are doing a challenging job – the importance of being pragmatic in getting plans in place that, in line with paragraph 35 of the NPPF, represent a sound plan for the authority and consistent in how they deal with different authorities. We support and expect Inspectors to work with LPAs to achieve a sound plan, including by recommending constructive main modifications in line with national policy. In this regard, I would reiterate the views set out by the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP in his 2015 letter which I attach, on the need to work pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound plan.”

I have since been trying to find an example of a local plan inspector in the last few years who has not been pragmatic in seeking to rescue a plan by way of main modifications rather than recommending withdrawal – and indeed the 2013/2014 spate of plans that failed examination were down to hard-edged legal failings in relation to the duty to cooperate.

Inspectors routinely allow pretty significant changes by way of main modifications, and general evidential backfilling, rather than recommend withdrawal. They routinely accept unenforceable assurances from the authority that the authority will carry out an early review – but at best “early” never means early and, at worst, as last week with the Reigate and Banstead plan, the authority’s (judge in its own cause) “review” determines that changes to the plan are not after all necessary!

So what is this paragraph getting at? If the Secretary of State were to be saying that inspectors should not be checking that legal requirements (eg the duty to cooperate and the need for adequate sustainability and habitats appraisals) have been met or that the plan meets the soundness test in NPPF, that would surely be wholly inappropriate. And shouldn’t we be protecting the independence of the Planning Inspectorate? Formal guidance is one thing, but “go easy” warning letters such as this surely just make an inspector’s task even more challenging.

Imagine equivalent guidance being given to appeal inspectors! Oh yes, bend over backwards to give the appellant time to amend elements of his scheme, overlook policy inconsistencies, fudge the approach to later phases of the development because the appellant has agreed, outside any enforceable timescale, to carry out an “early review” of those aspects. Doesn’t ring true, does it?

Simon Ricketts, 13 July 2019

Personal views, et cetera