Local plans: controlling development?

A local plan is the key document which allows local authorities to guide development in their areas. In the absence of a local plan the Government’s “presumption in favour of sustainable development” comes into play. The presumption has caused some concern that local authorities without a local plan are vulnerable to applications for development, particularly housing, which they are unable to refuse. Unplanned housing, particularly that on green belt land, is often headline news in both the local and national press and a regular subject of debate in Parliament.

What is a local plan?

In England, the planning system is “plan-led”. This means that local plans guide what developments should and should not get planning permission, how land should be protected and to ensure a balance between development, environmental protection and public interest. They normally cover a 15 year period and must be based on based on adequate, up-to-date and relevant evidence about the economic, social and environmental characteristics and prospects of the area.

The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) directs that each local planning authority should have a local plan. It is not however, a statutory requirement.

Local plans in place

Not all local planning authorities have an up-to-date local plan and some do not have one in place at all. A PQ from March 2014 revealed that 53% of councils have an adopted (finalised) local plan. In total 76% of councils have a published Local Plan, at differing stages of completion. The Government has said that decision-takers may give weight to relevant policies in emerging plans.

A March 2014 report by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners found that almost half of the plans “in the system” required further modifications. Progress had stalled in the majority of these cases (69%) due to Inspectors requiring more evidence of objectively assessed housing need.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development

The NPPF introduced a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. This means that where any local plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, planning permission for development will normally be granted, unless:

  • any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or
  • specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted.

An up-to-date adopted local plan is therefore important for local planning authorities wishing to control where development should go.  When the draft NPPF was published the Government said it was a “myth” that the presumption would mean that every planning application would have to be granted and that green spaces would not be protected. There is some concern, however, that planning authorities without a local plan are vulnerable to applications for housing development which they are then unable to refuse, without risking their decision being overturned at appeal by a Planning Inspector.

Housing appeals and “unplanned” development

A November 2013 article from the specialist publication, Planning, set out ten “unplanned” housing developments – i.e. sites which had not been allocated in local plans that had been allowed on appeal since the introduction of the NPPF. The examples add up to over 6000 homes on different sites which have been given planning permission at appeal – i.e. after they have been refused by the local planning authority. Most of these approvals date from before the presumption in favour of sustainable development came fully into force, from March 2013.

Development on green belt land

Another article from Planning from 23 August 2013 showed that there had been a small increase in the number of successful appeals allowing development on green belt land since the introduction of the NPPF:

For housing projects in the green belt, 34 per cent of appeals on housing were successful in 2012/13, the figures show. This is the highest rate in the six years that were analysed. But the figure is only slightly higher than before the NPPF was published – it was 26 per cent in 2011/12 and 31 per cent in 2010/11.

The Government has said that it is keen to protect green belt land. In its new March 2014 online Planning Practice Guidance it states that unmet housing need in a particular area is “unlikely” to meet the “very special circumstances” test to justify green belt development.

Future change

In the National Infrastructure Plan 2013 the Government said it would consult on introducing a statutory requirement for local authorities to have a local plan in place, in order to provide certainty for developers and to support locally-led “sustainable development”.

The Labour Party has set up a Housing Commission, led by Sir Michael Lyons, to look at how to get more residential land to market and unlock barriers to development.

While the main political parties are eager to protect the concept of locally led development, they are also keenly aware that that not enough new homes are being built to meet growing need. Reconciling housing demand with local views on where housing should go is an ongoing challenge for both Government and local authorities, and an interesting debate to follow.

Louise Smith