The threat of government intervention seems to have galvanised most of the 15 councils named as tardy plan-makers.  Most will probably escape intervention, say commentators.  And even those that do not may see only a partial takeover of their plan-making function.  Communities secretary Sajid Javid is expected to step in at a handful of the 15 local authorities threatened with intervention last November over their slow local plan progress, according to commentators.

“Given the way in which he announced this in November, he will want to demonstrate that he is serious, so he will follow through with one or two authorities,” said Catriona Riddell, who speaks on strategic planning for the Planning Officers Society, which represents local authority planners.  Likewise, Michael Knott, director at consultant Barton Willmore, said he expected “intervention in two or three as a minimum, otherwise the credibility of the threat will go out of the window”.

Javid said in November that his “patience had run out” with the councils, none of whom have drawn up a local plan since the current plan-making system was introduced in 2004.  He wrote to each, threatening to use newly acquired powers that allow him to insist that central government, higher tier authorities or other agencies step in and write plans for them.  But questions remain over what criteria Javid will use to decide where to intervene, and which authorities are most at risk.  It is also still unclear how he will intervene.

There has certainly been a lot of activity at the 15 authorities since Javid made his threat (see map).  According to information gathered by Planning, at least four have approved draft plans for consultation since November, and a further three have promised to consult on draft plans this month.  Matthew Spry, senior director at consultant Lichfields, said: “Clear progress has been made since the November letter, though it is difficult to know if this has been prompted by the intervention or not.”

Derek Stebbing of consultancy Intelligent Plans and Examinations, who was a member of the government-appointed Local Plans Expert Group, said: “This has been a big wake-up call for those authorities, but some have seized it as an opportunity.  I think in the majority of cases it won’t mean intervention.”

Commentators surmise that the government wants to see authorities show a detailed plan-making timetable, political commitment to meeting it, and a willingness to address issues behind previous plan-making failures.  For example, they say that recent progress on meeting the duty to cooperate may help St Albans and the three south Essex councils – Basildon, Brentwood and Castle Point – to avoid intervention. Riddell said: “My understanding is that Javid is looking for a commitment from planning authorities to progress a plan, with a public timetable setting this out.”

Stebbing said: “If councils come back with a series of excuses, that is not going to be received well.  Vague local development schemes that just talk about doing things in ‘autumn or winter’ will not be acceptable.”

Spry said councils would also be likely to avoid intervention where “there is a clear sense that intervention would be unlikely to secure a sound plan any quicker than letting the council continue.” Knott said: “It seems highly unlikely there will be any intervention for authorities who will be submitting a plan this year.”  If that is borne out, it would take nine of the 15 out of the firing line.

Some councils have faced further setbacks since November, which could leave them vulnerable.  In Kent, members of Thanet District Council have just voted down a draft plan due to go out for consultation.  In York, which is targeting plan submission in May, councillors voted against an officer recommendation to increase housing numbers to bring them in line with the newly proposed standard methodology for assessing housing need.

Riddell said: “Thanet is clearly a frontrunner for intervention, but I suspect so is York, where there is clearly no political appetite to take a sound plan forward.”  However, a spokesperson for City of York Council said it had informed the government of its “commitment to submit a sound plan for examination following the final consultation on the emerging plan”.

With little existing capacity for plan-making in county councils or central government, many suspect that Javid, where he intervenes, will not want to take over plan-making completely.  Commentators suggest that whether he does so may depend whether he judges that resources or political will are the main problem.  Riddell said: “The secretary of state can be the decision-maker, or he can give decision-making powers to the county.  He can also use consultants to support the local planning authority in preparing the plan if resources are the issue, but not take their decision-making powers away.”

Stebbing agrees that Javid is likely to consider “other measures that fall short of direct control”.  Meanwhile, he suggests that pressure will be maintained on other authorities by making clear further interventions remain possible.  He said: “There has been speculation there’s a further list of authorities in danger.  Certainly, all of these 15 will remain on notice.  He will measure and monitor their progress.”

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman declined to say when Javid will make his decision, adding that he had written to 15 planning authorities, “including Thanet”, and “will consider next steps” now that responses have come back.

Source: Joey Gardiner, Planning Resource, 8 February 2018

Local Comment:  How well do the excuses given by Wirral Council for failing to make sufficient progress with its Local Plan stand up to scrutiny?  It says: “plan-making had been hampered by the abolition of regional spatial strategies and changing population forecasts, requiring a green belt review.  Pressing on with timetable to adopt new plan by 2020.”  The abolition of all regional spatial strategies was announced on 6 July 2010 and, following the conclusion of a legal challenge, the revocation of the North West Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS13) was announced by the Government on 27 March 2013.  That is now almost 5 years ago and it stretches credulity to suggest that it has taken nearly this long to take the revocation of RSS13 into account when it has not similarly “hampered” the vast majority of north west councils in preparing their local plans.  The excuse that a green belt review is needed also does not stand up to scrutiny because applying the Government’s standardised housing demand methodology shows that Wirral has more than enough housing land to meet its 5 year (+25% buffer) requirement.  There is no need for a green belt boundary review to meet housing demand (although the council may want to do a green belt boundary review for other reasons – in the Hoylake area, perhaps?).  As the Council suggests that a Local Plan will not be adopted until 2020 at the earliest, the threat of Government intervention has not gone away – yet. – Philip Barton