Behind the excitement of the Budget’s additional billions and the game of working how much was new, another key policy continued to progress, as central government intervention in local plans continued to inch nearer to implementation.

The continued refusal of some councils to deliver a plan and come close to meeting housing need is an open secret, and makes a mockery of a Prime Minister who claims solving the housing crisis is her personal mission.

Conceived in 2015, and progressed in the Housing White Paper earlier this year, the policy of central government taking over from tardy local plan-makers was always seen as crucial, but troublesome for a Tory government with a tiny majority.

With May’s government dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party to operate, the policy remains just as crucial, but is now even more difficult to implement.

The letter sent earlier this month by communities secretary Sajid Javid, putting 15 councils on notice of intervention, was therefore a bold move. He and planning minister Alok Sharma deserve credit for pushing this through the system. Deep within the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), serious thinking is taking place about what a local plan could look like if the department effectively oversaw its creation.

DCLG is trying to proceed with one eye on the procedure and formal requirements of commissioning and putting in place a local plan, but with another on the complexity of politics and ensuring that any proposals that come forward do not create an unworkable backlash.

The 15 councils that have been put on notice are not all likely to lose control of plan-making. DCLG will be trying to work out which of them are politically feasible candidates for intervention, as well as which are the worst offenders in terms of planning and delivery. This brings a whole series of issues in its train, because any intervention in these areas will have a knock-on impact in similar councils.

The government is also well aware that more money is needed in planning, but also that planning must be more focused on what people care most about – crucial issues around design and infrastructure, keeping on board local communities as far as possible, and ensuring account is taken of technical issues without bringing the whole process to a halt.

This intervention in local plans could create an effective template for future intercessions and plan-making. If it works, it would shake the current system to its foundations, in terms of policy, procedure, the work of local authorities and consultancies. It is a major gamble. Watch this space…

Alex Morton is director of public affairs agency Field Consulting. He was special adviser on planning to Prime Minister David Cameron for two years and a half years up to 2016.

Source: Alex Morton, Planning Resource, 1 December 2017