EXCLUSIVE: Private sector consultants and masterplanners could be paid by central government to draw up the local plans of authorities that have failed to do it themselves, Planning understands.

According to a senior Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) source, a number of options are being considered by the government for fulfilling the plan-making functions of any authorities stripped of their plan-making powers.

The news comes after secretary of state Sajid Javid today announced he had formally begun the process of removing plan-making powers from 15 of the 70 authorities that have failed to produce a local plan since 2004.

Under provisions in the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, the secretary of state can either take plan-making powers of local authorities in to central government, or direct another tier of local government, such as a county council, to draw up the plan.

A senior DCLG source said that the exact nature of any intervention would be dependent upon local circumstances, and whether there was an upper tier authority the DCLG could “trust” to deliver a plan.

However, if the powers were taken on by the secretary of state, the source said, it was unlikely that DCLG civil servants would themselves do it, with drafting instead outsourced to third parties.  Options being considered to undertake this work included, he said, the Planning Inspectorate itself, independent experts such as plan inspectors, planning consultancies, and masterplanning firms such as Arup or Atkins.

This news may raise concerns among anti-development campaigners that consultants from the development industry may be used to draw up plans.  Any plans drawn up by central government or county councils would, however, have to meet exactly the same criteria as local authority-authored plans.

Javid today said his “patience has run out” with local authorities that had failed to get plans in place despite repeated opportunities to do so.  His decision to start the process to strip 15 local authorities them of plan-making powers makes good on a threat issued by former housing minister Brandon Lewis in 2015 to do this if plans weren’t in place by early 2017.

However, the source says there was still a chance for these 15 local authorities to prove they could deliver by themselves, and avoid being stripped of their plan-making responsibility.

Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, said there was no fundamental problem with private organisations writing plans, but that the government should not underestimate the scale of the task it was taking on.

“The government has introduced this power to take on local plans, but they haven’t changed the rules to form them – they still have to meet the statutory tests. It’s quite a challenge for any organisation and I don’t envy the secretary of state,” he said.

Source: Joey Gardiner, Planning Resource, 16 November 2017

Local Comment:  No real surprises here.  It would be quicker and more economic in the long term to employ a team of qualified Planning Inspectors to write Wirral’s Local Plan.  This could streamline the process because there may be no need for a formal examination of the new plan if its soundness is tested as a part of the plan production process.  The question that communities want an answer to is what role will neighbourhood planning forums play in helping to prepare the Local Plan? – Philip Barton