What is stopping councils from making plans?

What does it say about a council if they haven’t bothered to produce a core strategy? Last week I reviewed the local development schemes of about sixty local planning authority websites. I needed to know when they were planning to publish their core strategies. I was genuinely shocked to find that many of them seemed to have stopped developing spatial plans altogether.

The requirement to produce a core strategy has been in place since 2004. Core strategies were supposed to be plans that could be written in about two years. Six years later, the planning community isn’t that shocked to find that only half of Englandhas a plan. We’ve known for a long while that, on average, core strategies take longer than two years to complete. But how can so many authorities still be so far behind?

The websites I trolled through didn’t explain much. Some authorities haven’t updated their website since before Christmas. Others have a local development scheme that states they plan to submit the core strategy in 2014! What will they use between now and then? An outdated plan could be worthless in a system that is undergoing such significant reform.

The Localism Bill and the implications it will have for planning were mentioned frequently as a reason for pausing work on the core strategy. How can this be? Our biggest message to planners and councillors has been: get your plan in place! Without a local plan, councils will have nothing to use as the basis for up-to-date and informed decisions on development proposals.

Regional policy is effectively gone and national policy will soon be significantly reduced. The presumption in favour of sustainable development will make it very difficult to refuse permission unless there is a very good local reason for doing so. Have a look at these recommendations for the national planning policy framework if you want to see how this could work in practice.

Planners, academics and consultants have spent a lot of time trying to explain why core strategy production moves so slowly. As an organisation, our whole purpose for existence is to help councils get a plan in place. I’ve spent months assessing the impact of our support to authorities and questioning whether and how it was helping. Unfortunately, I still don’t know the answer.

It was easier to accept the barriers to producing plans back in 2008. There were so few plans in place that it seemed like everybody was in the same boat. But now, it feels like there is a much wider divide between those with a plan and those without.

Are local authorities giving up on plan making? Are politicians putting pressure on officers to hold back? Is there nobody left to do the work after the local authority budget cuts? Or am I just blowing this whole thing out of proportion and actually, it’s not that big of a deal?


This post was originally published on the unofficial blog of the Planning Advisory Service.

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