The government faces significant obstacles in taking over local plan production at the three councils that face intervention, experts warn.

At the end of March, communities secretary Sajid Javid announced he was sending in a team of experts to assess whether he should take over local plan preparation at Castle Point in Essex, Thanet in Kent and Wirral in Merseyside due to their continued failure to produce a local plan and missing a series of predefined milestones by agreed dates.

The three were among 15 authorities warned five months ago by Javid that they faced intervention unless they provided a good explanation for their lack of progress by 31 January.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 gives the secretary of state the power to take over preparation of a development plan, or to direct the authority in the preparation of its plan, if he thinks the council is “failing or omitting to do anything it is necessary for them to do” in relation to preparing the plan. But Javid has not yet said that he will go down this path.

Initially, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) will send a team of experts, led by chief planner Steve Quartermain, to meet officials from the three councils, according to a spokesman. The team will assess each council’s ability to write its own local plan, before reporting back to Javid, who will then consider whether to proceed with further intervention “later this year”.

According to Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor of the Planning Officers Society, the purpose of sending in the team is for Javid to show “there is serious intent behind the intervention process”, and to ensure “he has good cause to take action, especially if this results in stripping the local authority of its plan-making responsibility”.

The government says it has begun procuring private sector experts, to ensure the necessary capacity is quickly available should Javid decide intervention is necessary. However, experts say practical obstacles may impede any hastening of plan production.

Simon Ricketts, partner at law firm Town Legal, said: “Unless a plan is at an advanced stage, it will be very difficult in practice for the secretary of state to take over the process, for reasons such as the resources needed and the desirability of local buy-in. Even where a plan is at an advanced stage, intervention is likely to lead to delay.” There is also the risk of a legal challenge if authorities feel the minister did not give sufficient weight to all relevant considerations, he added.

“In most cases where authorities have been slow to deliver plans, there are usually good reasons for this. Where a plan has previously failed the duty to cooperate, he can’t just take it forward if the circumstances that led to the failure still exist,” Riddell said.

When he wrote to the three councils, Javid told the 12 other authorities named in November they will not face further action for the moment as they are making progress, but warned any further delays would lead to the government stepping in.

Michael Knott, planning director at consultancy Barton Willmore, said a collaborative approach from the government may work better: “I think there is an opportunity for a more constructive dialogue with the authorities to identify what support could be given to ensure timely progress is made.”

But John Rhodes, director at planning consultancy Quod, said the government must keep the option of intervention open: “It is very important that authorities who are reluctant to meet their obligations recognise there is an ultimate sanction.”

THE THREE COUNCILS AT RISK OF INTERVENTION

Castle Point: According to a letter sent to the authority by housing secretary Sajid Javid, it failed to meet “at least five” milestones in its published local development schemes since 2004 and twice failed to take a plan through examination. Javid did not consider the council’s defence that it is constrained by green belt to be an “exceptional circumstance”.

Wirral: The council has failed to meet milestones in published local development schemes at least six times since 2004, the letter said. Javid rejected the authority’s claims that plan-making had been delayed due to the abolition of regional spatial strategies and government funding cuts, saying these were not exceptional circumstances.

Thanet: The authority failed to meet milestones in published local development schemes at least five times since 2004, the letter said. Javid rejected the council’s justification for delays, which included a debate over the future of Manston Airport and the need to find alternative sites after that proposal failed to progress.

Source: Colin Marrs, Planning Resource, 5 April 2018