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

Written evidence from Harborough District Council (ARSS 59)

The fundamental problem is that of making a decision to abolish a core component of the Development Plan at a stroke with no replacement policy framework in place, either of a permanent, well thought out and endorsed nature or even of a transitional nature (ie a credible "stop gap").

Abolition of the RSS in this way takes out the "certainty" that the adoption of a regional strategy provides to both developers (the partnership of much needed investors and landowners) and the wider "stakeholder" community. Developers have invested both time and resources in the regional planning process in promoting their proposals and where regional strategies have endorsed those proposals, in the setting out of "enabling" policies, developers have a "right" (subject to matters of detail) to expect a degree of certainty about those proposals being successfully delivered through the remaining planning process (ie via the LDF and/or straight through to planning application). Removal of that "certainty" through the revocation decision is not surprisingly now subject of a "test" case Judicial Review (ref Cala Homes, Winchester which is now being supported by the House Builders Federation). The outcome of this is keenly awaited.

The LDF's that the planning authorities are charged with delivering now have to set out housing needs and delivery targets, to be delivered purely within their administrative areas. These housing "targets" have to be tested, and will almost invariably be challenged by local communities and developers alike. This is a huge step change from having to determine "merely" the distribution of a regionally set and evidenced housing target. The additional work required to undertake a robust assessment of all the relevant demographic evidence from which the local housing need can be drawn, simply across the LPA administrative area, will be difficult, expensive and unlikely to be sound in relation to the strategic overall housing market area context. It will now require additional, work to be commissioned to provide supporting evidence that has not been anticipated and therefore budgeted for, and will involve additional work in managing each stage in the LDF process to adoption. It will, for example, almost certainly lengthen the LDF final examination process and therefore overall cost of LDF delivery.

There is a danger that different planning authorities in the same Housing Market Area (HMA) take a different approach to the assessment of housing need and its apportionment within their respective administrative areas. The absence of a consistent approach will increase the confusion of how actual local housing needs across the HMA are being met.

In Leicestershire, some local planning authorities have made more headway with their LDF work than others. Those "ahead of the game" have had their RSS regional housing targets endorsed through the government office assessment of "soundness", the public examination process followed by binding Planning Inspectors reports. Other LPAs have not got that far. Those LPAs are now picking up the pieces arising from the RSS revocation and are re-assessing their housing targets. We understand that some are intending to stay with the RSS housing figure because they feel it is "right" for their plan area whilst others are considering proposing a lower housing figure, (especially where they were unhappy with the outcome of the RSS process). Some of the LPAs who feel a lower figure is right for them may well wish to contest the housing figures being taken forward by neighbouring authorities where they feel those authorities should be taking a greater share of development to meet the needs of the HMA as a whole, including even those that have decided to stay with the RRS target. There is a prospect of those authorities challenging the approach of other adjacent LPAs through the formal Examination process. This can only happen to those LPAs that have yet to take their LDFs to formal Examination (ie those authorities having adopted, or now in a position to adopt their LDFs will be "immune" from challenge). It is a recipe for potential chaos and wasteful public expense in arbitrating what will be essentially a "re-run" of what took place through the RSS examination process when each districts share of the HMAs housing requirement was resolved.

It is also evident that the combination of the revocation decision and the perceived ethos of "localism" is stimulating local political confidence into making decisions to resist unpopular development proposals, especially housing proposals, even in the face of evidence to suggest that the RSS related five year housing supply is lacking in those areas. The danger is of a hiatus in supply arising from the revocation when the housing market is already so troubled, compounding the increasing lack of accessibility to housing occurring within our communities. One direct aspect of this is that local authorities will have to "pick up the tab" in terms of its homelessness prevention endeavours, and where that fails, costly provision for the homeless where there are statutory obligations to make adequate provisions irrespective of budgetary constraints.

Where LPAs have taken their LDFs through formal Examination and received binding Inspectors reports there are RSS policy tools that have become embedded in those LDF's (eg the housing targets specified for the Principal Urban Area (PUA) of Leicester set out in the RSS East Midlands strategy for the Leicestershire Sub-region). LPAs taking their LDFs forward after RSS revocation have no obligation to adhere to such policies in their LDFs but must respect, and take account of, how those policies are being delivered by adjacent LPAs who have taken them forward. The consistent application of other former RSS polices such as Green Wedge policy are also affected in this way.

Other RSS polices are now lost and this is creating a serious policy vacuum—eg strategic policy guidance on renewable energy, flooding, minerals and waste. The abandoned partial review of RSS East Midlands on such matters is also significant. For example, there are spatial concentrations of development proposals for wind farms both within Harborough District and in adjacent LPAs in the M1/A14 corridor. Harborough District Council wanted the review of regional planning policy to address the need for policy guidance on the cumulative impact, sub-regionally, of these proposals recognising the disproportionate contribution to regional renewable energy targets from these developments in one small area of the Region. The opportunity for a coherent policy approach to this issue now appears lost.

Arrangements clearly need to be put in place to ensure appropriate co-operation, on a sub-regional basis, between LPAs on such matters previously covered by the RSS as waste, minerals, flooding etc. It is suggested that the minimum spatial area should be the HMA sub-region but that arrangements to also consider cross boundary issues will also be required. The proposed Local Enterprise Partnerships, as suggested, may be dressed up to have the scope to fulfil some form of a strategic planning policy function but arrangements to deliver on this, not surprisingly, appear distinctly lacking in the submissions being made.

The LEP proposal as submitted for the Leicestershire area only allows for cooperation and collaboration as currently exists through a partnership based Housing and Planning Infrastructure Group. This simply comprises representatives from the key stakeholder organisations (including the Leicester and Leicestershire Local Planning Authorities, the HCA, and HBF) which reports, via a co-ordination group, to the sub-regional Leadership Group. There is therefore absolutely no accountability at LEP level for planning policy decisions in the proposal as submitted.

The issue of the democratic accountability of the LEP to deliver a strategic planning policy framework that would be effective in dealing with former RSS matters would need to be addressed. To be effective, such a policy framework would also need Development Plan status, either as 'son of the RSS' or through some kind of mandatory incorporation of the LEP policies in the LDF's of those local authorities within the LEP area, or via some other mechanism to give appropriate "weight" to the policies as a material planning consideration through the introduction of new legislation.

September 2010

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