Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Written evidence from Mills & Reeve LLP (ARSS 37)


1.1  Abolition of regional housing targets is causing delay and uncertainty in the system.

1.2  There was more to RSS than housing targets—strategic planning, an important part of our planning system for decades, has been weakened as a result of abolition and the Government should be clear as to what will replace this.

1.3  Incentives may have some place, but there is much to be done on this and in any event, it is doubtful that they can provide the same outcomes as traditional planning.

1.4  We need more clarity around the role of incentives and an understanding of how the potential disadvantages are to be avoided.

1.5  Not enough is being done to explain the benefits development can bring, and expectation (which is likely to be unrealistic) has been raised that communities will not have to accept development they do not want.

1.6  LEPs may have a role to play in forward planning and this should be explored.


2.1  Mills & Reeve LLP is a top 50 national law firm with 92 partners, over 460 lawyers and a total staff of around 800. We have offices in Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, London, Manchester and Norwich and serve clients throughout the country and internationally.

2.2  This submission is prepared by Mills & Reeve's planning law team. The team is based in Cambridge, and specialises in town and country planning, working for a range of clients in both the public and private sectors.


3.1  The implications of the abolition of regional house building targets.

3.1.1  It seems apparent from what we hear that a number of local planning authorities have, in reliance upon abolition, already taken certain decisions which will have significant impacts on housing development.

3.1.2  Authorities are taking their own views depending on circumstances but we hear that:

(i)  planning applications have been refused which, prior to abolition, are likely to have been approved;

(ii)  allocations are not being acknowledged or are being reconsidered;

(iii)  where shortfalls in supply had already been identified, there is "no rush" to fill the gap; and

(iv)  work on emerging LDF documents is being delayed.

3.1.3  In addition, developers, land owners and their advisers are uncertain as to what the next steps are to be and how, in future, house building targets will be formulated.

3.1.4  Given the doubts which exist, developers are likely to hold back on seeking additional strategic land options and this too will mean further delay in the system.

3.1.5  The combination of all of this will inevitably lead to a reduction (we suggest of some significance) in housing supply at least in the short to medium term. This is to be regretted, not least because house building rates were already below what, as a nation, we had aspired to and have been so over a period of some years.

3.2  The likely effectiveness of incentives.

3.2.1  This is difficult to judge without seeing further detail but the following points occur:

(i)  more than one kind of incentive has been spoken of. Those incentives which focus on retention and "top up" of Council Tax and business rates are incentives which are aimed at the local planning authority. However, incentives which are to persuade local communities to support development need to be more direct and locally based. These may come through in the usual way as section 106 contributions or as part of CIL (or its substitute). However, in the case of CIL (as presented by the previous administration), there may be no link between the payment and the development so this could lead to a dilution of that particular incentive.

(ii)  we would encourage the coalition Government to be more clear when it uses the term "localism" in the planning context. The determination of planning applications is likely to remain with the local planning authority, but much is made in press releases etc about the increased role of the "local community". It is important not to overstate what the role and influence of local people is to be, so as to avoid disappointment when "incentives" become more clear.

(iii)  the best form of incentive should be the positive aspects of development—seen as such rather than as a route to secure any financial incentives. Little has been done, as far as we can see, to take forward the recommendation of Kate Barker that development should be promoted as something which is positive, and which can bring real benefits, and there are still significant and persuasive voices against most forms of development in many if not all "communities"

(iv)  in areas where housing development is seen as part of a desired regeneration or economic growth plan, then the community view is more likely to be favourable, but in any event, it is incumbent on "local leaders" to demonstrate support where development is for the greater good.

(v)  incentives may well work—but is the outcome of that always desirable? Local authorities, keen to attract the financial benefits of development, may be persuaded to approve certain types of planning application—but we must be careful to avoid inappropriate planning decisions.

(a)  For example, if the incentives for housing development are attractive, a local authority may be persuaded to approve applications in locations which are not sustainable.

(b)  Viewed strategically, the right location for housing development might be a neighbouring authority's area so whatever the scheme for incentives is, it must avoid unhelpful "competition" between authorities as well as poor planning.

3.2.2  As with many types of development, housing provision needs to be viewed in a strategic way. By this we mean that the provision of a housing supply is not only a matter for individual local planning authorities—nor local communities. Whereas local communities may be attracted by the idea of "a few more houses in the village for local people", housing provision is a key element of economic growth and success for geographic areas which comprise more than a single local planning authority's area.

3.2.3  The planned growth of Cambridge is a good case in point. Surrounded by a tightly drawn green belt, the recent review of that green belt came about (as directed by RSS) once the case for it was made by important local employers including the University of Cambridge. It was clear that the price to be paid for leaving the green belt untouched was too great—very high house prices and traffic congestion (as workers came into the City from their homes beyond the green belt), were making Cambridge unattractive for many employees and potential employees. Without a significantly increased supply of housing, and much improved infrastructure, Cambridge's future economic success was in question.

3.2.4  The review of the Cambridge green belt, and the removal of significant areas of land from it, was not without dissenting voices but the benefits of this kind of strategic planning and the developments, and infrastructure, it brings forward are clear.

3.2.5  The reality is that some local communities will have to face significant housing growth, far in excess of what ideally they would have wanted, and at levels which local people find unacceptable. Incentives may be inadequate to make large developments acceptable to local communities. The impression is being given that local communities will not have to face levels of development they feel uncomfortable with, or that incentives will make development acceptable—but, if these expectations are to be met, there will inevitably be a significant reduction in our aspiration for levels of housing development, which in turn will hinder economic growth.

3.3  Arrangements for cooperation between authorities in relation to certain strategic matters.

3.3.1  There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Government to acknowledge any level of planning decision making (including forward planning) which is above that of "local". However, it should be recognised that forward planning has, for many years (and well before the arrival on the scene of the "region") had both a strategic and a local element. The Town and Country Planning Act 1971 established county structure plans with local plans being done at district level. Structure plans came to an end following the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which introduced the concept of the region and RSS. Cooperation on structure planning was well established and its benefits well understood.

3.3.2  Some issues must be viewed strategically. These include waste, minerals. renewable energy, infrastructure and also housing. In fact most forms of development. beyond the minor, will have some strategic relevance and role. Waste and minerals are dealt with at county level so there is at least a certain level of strategic planning for those developments.

3.3.3  Without an obligation to produce development plan documents (DPDs) dealing with certain issues, it must be open to doubt whether relevant policies will be produced.

3.3.4  Local planning authorities will however be under an obligation to produce their own DPDs and Government guidance could require, as part of the test of soundness, appropriate coverage of certain issues following consultation, say, with authorities included within the same LEP. This is not ideal, since there would still be no single body with the obligation to take a more strategic view, but it would offer some control.

3.3.5  The relevant LEP could take on a role of ensuring these matters are covered but much depends here on the part played by the LEP in the planning context (see below).

3.4  Existing proposals on a duty to cooperate and the possibility of LEPs fulfilling a planning function.

3.4.1  Duties to cooperate can be valuable, but their value can also be overstated. A number of authorities do now cooperate on planning and a number of different arrangements exist—but the extent and success of these arrangements depend on "local circumstances". For example, Cambridge City Council and its single neighbour South Cambridgeshire District Council have a joint committee to consider those planning applications for major developments which cross the boundary between the authorities—but, up to now at least, they have preferred to take their own course as far as development plans are concerned.

3.4.2  Local councils owe duties to their constituents and will tend to look at issues from a local perspective. Often this will be what is required, but there will be tensions when certain issues fall to be decided. Some of the LEP proposals, we understand, suggest that the relevant LEP may take on a planning role. The proposals are in outline but it is difficult to see how these more strategic planning questions are to be taken forward if not by the LEP.

3.4.3  Even with a planning role, the LEP should not be the local planning authority—but there must be merit in seeking to establish a credible role for the LEP in undertaking research, gathering parts of the evidence base for LDFs and coordinating the forward planning of the LEP area.

3.4.4  We would recommend that LEPs be asked to consider this role and comment further on how it could contribute to good planning within its area. However, in making that suggestion, we recognise that LEPs are not proposed to be elected bodies.

3.5  Research and data

3.5.1  There should be no barriers to dissemination of existing material, and the LEP could take responsibility for ensuring work is kept up to date. This is likely to mean that different authorities within the LEP area are asked to take responsibility for different pieces of research, with the LEP coordinating. This may assist cross boundary cooperation.

September 2010

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Prepared 31 March 2011