The plan led system has long been a source of intrigue. Along with Green Belt it is one of those immoveable aspects of British planning that seems beyond criticism.
First source of intrigue is because it must be the biggest misnomer in British social policy. 24 years after the plan led system came in we still don’t have many plans. Only 57% of local authorities have an adopted local plan and only 15% have a post – NPPF plan, namely one that can be described as up to date. I recently heard someone from York City Council confirming that within two years they should be able to adopt the first plan for the City since 1956. Newcastle, as a major regional capital currently has the 1998 UDP as its adopted policy document.
Planning must be the only area of policymaking where national policy is more fleet footed than local policy. As a housing specialist we seem to get brand new national policy every few years. Since 1992 we have had 3 versions of PPG3, plus PPS3 and now NPPF. In contrast the pace of local plan production seems to sit somewhere between glacial and snail.
The second thing which causes intrigue is its purpose. It’s clearly not to speed up housing delivery as average annual output in the last 25 years has been roughly half the level of the preceding 25 years.
I guess its attractiveness lies in the innate desire of us planners and policymakers to prepare plans. Perhaps giving us an attractive sense of control over the rapacious developers. It also seems so similar to our North European cousins with their high quality urban extensions and so divorced from the sprawl and unplanned development in the Southern Europe, Ireland or the US.
A comprehensive district-wide local plan offers us the chance to control the future of a whole district or town or even City. It allows us to draw a map where some areas are shaded brown for housing and other areas are shaded green for countryside or purple for employment etc. Then, once the plan is finished you simply say yes to a housing application if it is shaded brown. The brown areas are carefully sized to accommodate all the homes we need for the next 15 years. Not too small and not too big.
Job done. Housing applications on brown = Yes. Housing applications on another colour = No.
But it hasn’t quite worked out as planned – pardon the pun. Firstly, unlike our North European cousins sometimes we see the preparation of the plan as the end of the job – other than to sit back and monitor what others to to make it happen. Completely different in Holland or Germany where the plan is simply the catalyst for local and central government to roll up their sleeves to work with the private sector to make the plan happen. The 1991 VINEX programme in Holland planned 455,000 new homes in new suburbs. By 2008 they were built.
Secondly, the plans, when written, simply didn’t get implemented. In response the Government then asked LAs to prepare strange “plans lite” documents like urban capacity studies or SHLAAs. These were aimed at defining the off-plan sites which could nevertheless be deemed suitable for housing in order to drive up housing output – in particular on brownfield sites.
Unfortunately, over ambitious Employment Land Reviews, the recession and the abolition of “garden grabbing” largely put an end to these “plan-lite” “windfalls” as a significant source of supply.
Now the “in my day” bit.
I can remember, just, what it was like to work in a local authority before the plan-led system. The local plan team prepared local plans for areas of major change or areas where particular control was needed. In my authority about 5 local plans covered about 20% of the area. The development control team was then trusted to say “yes” or “no” to housing applications based on whether the site and design complied with general national and local policy objectives or criteria-based policies. Namely whether or not it was a good development. It all seemed to work quite well. Certainly I found development control was an exciting place to work constantly making tough judgement calls on interesting applications. There were no housing caps – simply a loose application of the 5 year supply based on supply estimates compared to past build rates.
So what happens now? Nothing – as the plan led system appears sacrosanct and we all need to work within it. But that doesn’t stop old timers like me hankering for a planning system which either:
a. enables local government to quickly prepare district wide plans and then get involved in making delivery with pace happen, or,
b. focuses local planning effort on areas of change and then considers other applications on their sustainable development merits rather than the colour it is shaded on a big map.