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

Written evidence rom South Worcestershire Local Planning Authority (ARSS 75)


1.1  The local planning authorities for South Worcestershire (Malvern Hills District, Wychavon District and Worcester City) welcome the opportunity to jointly respond to the call for evidence. The following evidence is submitted by Malvern Hills District Council and whilst it has not been formally approved by the three Councils it is consist with the views of the three Councils expressed in response to the recent West Midlands RSS partial review, the West Midlands Regional Committee (Planning for the Future—reported April 2010) and other national consultations.

1.2  Our non-technical evidence relates to:

The need to enable a smooth transition from top-down RSS driven growth requirements to locally developed housing aspirations following revocation of RSS and for this transition not to be undermined by "planning by appeal".

An urgent need for interim guidance to address LDF production and land supply issues during the transition period.

A need to consider how regional policy gaps created by the revocation of RSS are addressed (such as High Technology Corridors, waste and minerals).

The revocation establishes a significant shift in resource and expertise demands to the sub-regional level which needs to be addressed.

The need for any incentive scheme for housing growth to enable the front loading of infrastructure provision.

Any scheme should be a genuine incentive scheme and not simply reward housing delivery that would have happened anyhow or is already in the pipeline.

Concerns regarding how regional transportation issues will be addressed and integrated with the land use process in the absence of RSS.

Local Enterprise Partnerships are a positive initiative and will have a major role in setting out sub-regional infrastructure requirements and priorities. But given the range and size of models currently being put forward it is premature to propose that they should be given planning powers.

It is essential that the existing RSS evidence base remains available (on-line) and arrangements should be made to facilitate future regional research, monitoring and sharing of data.


2.1  The local authorities for South Worcestershire in 2006 agreed to work jointly on the preparation of a South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy (SWJCS) which addresses the same timeframe as the now revoked West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy Phase Two Partial Review (WMRSS) ie up to the year 2026.

2.2  The need to address cross boundary issues arising from the emerging WMRSS and specifically the future growth of Worcester, has led to our decision to work on an informal joint basis on LDF production for South Worcestershire.

2.3  This approach to joint working carried through into the submission of joint representations on the WMRSS (phase 2 and 3 partial reviews) and the presentation of a single case at the Phase 2 Examination in Public.

2.4  The South Worcestershire Authorities generally supported the WMRSS review process and the overall direction adopted by the emerging strategy. However, this support has always been subject to a number of major caveats related to WMRSS growth figures for South Worcestershire, specifically the handling of migration requirements, the funding and delivery of essential infrastructure and windfall allowances.

2.5  In the light of the recent revocation of RSS the South Worcestershire authorities have publicly re-affirmed their intention to produce a joint core strategy for South Worcestershire. However, the revocation process has enabled a major rethink of the emerging strategy for South Worcestershire and the authorities have indicated a wish to develop a strategy which is economic prosperity led, not housing led, and enables our concerns regarding the appropriateness of WMRSS growth levels and infrastructure provision to be addressed.


"The implications of the abolition of regional house building targets for levels of housing development?"

3.1  Transition period and essential guidance

3.2  The South Worcestershire Authorities have generally welcomed the opportunity to fundamentally review the growth requirements set by the emerging WMRSS and engage with local communities and stakeholders over the scope and content of a revised Strategy for South Worcestershire.

3.3  However, whilst much of the work undertaken to date in responding to the RSS process and developing a Core Strategy for South Worcestershire can be "banked" to support the review process there is a need to commission additional evidence and undertake additional community engagement. This will take time and additional resources not previously built into the Local Development Scheme.

3.4  The South Worcestershire authorities are concerned that whilst the RSS has been revoked much of the national policy framework regarding the delivery of housing remains in place and may serve to place continuing pressure on those local authorities genuinely wishing to now re-engage with local communities over the development of local housing aspirations (as opposed to previously holding a debate over the appropriateness and status of imposed RSS housing targets).

3.5  We are conscious that whilst we are commissioning additional evidence such as a sub-regional review of the RSS evidence base, revisiting the Local Development Scheme, undertaking additional public engagement and necessarily undertaking an additional Preferred Options consultation into our Core Strategy there is an apparent "policy vacuum" at the local and sub-regional level.

3.6  Given the Government's intentions regarding empowering local communities to set local housing aspirations it would therefore be inappropriate for the development industry to be enabled to circumvent the review process by encouraging planning inspectors at appeal to simply roll forward assumptions about previous and "locally unpopular" regional housing requirements as the local authorities have not been able to complete the review process.

3.7  We accept that the review process should not be a charter for inactivity or standing in the way of meeting housing need, but in areas such as South Worcestershire, where a significant level of RSS housing requirements were previously based upon demand as opposed to local need, sufficient time must be allowed to enable the review and community engagement process to be completed.

3.8  It is the suggestion of the South Worcestershire authorities that interim national guidance is urgently required to enable local authorities to take the opportunity to genuinely bring forward local housing aspirations. The South Worcestershire authorities wish to complete this process as quickly as possible however, we are locked into the LDF process which remains unchanged and just as lengthy.

3.9  Interim guidance would also serve to give local communities the confidence that engaging in the review process will be meaningful and not undermined by planning by appeal. In South Worcestershire it is a significant concern that the requirement to bring the Core Strategy and Site Allocations and Policies DPD (SAPDPD) to Examination in Public sequentially will add 12 months to the adoption date of the SAPDPD which will simply extend the period of uncertainty for rural communities and leave rural sites at risk from planning by appeal for an unacceptable period.

3.10  In addition to dealing with issues such as interpretation of five and 15 year housing land requirements, where a local review is being undertaken, national guidance could significantly improve understanding of the appropriate methodologies to be taken into account in developing local housing aspirations. As a model we are conscious that guidance was issued with respect to developing Housing Market Assessments and this could reasonably be extended to setting out a process for Housing Aspiration development. Guidance could include the technical evidential process, the weight, if any, to be afforded to previous statements, such as Section 4(4) advice and the related community engagement process.

3.11  Significant Policy Gaps

3.12  Much attention has been given to the revocation of unpopular housing requirements and little attention afforded to the implications of the revocation process on regional (RSS) land use policies which were working well and which were generally well received.

3.13  The South Worcestershire authorities would wish the Committee to consider the implications for the wider strategy process and role of Core Strategies with respect to how this gap can be plugged.

3.14  Advice to local authorities preparing Core Strategies and related DPD has been not to restate national or regional policy where this could simply be relied upon.

3.15  The South Worcestershire authorities have followed this advice but now recognise that key land use policies which previously complimented other regional economic development, regeneration, infrastructure or environmental strategies may now not be set out in an appropriate land use policy unless this role is now fulfilled by the Core Strategy.

3.16  A specific example of this process is the definition and protection of High Technology Corridors (Central Technology Belt—CTB) in the West Midlands. The CTB remains an active economic development initiative for the West Midlands but now has no corresponding regional land use definition or related policies.

3.17  The South Worcestershire authorities suggest that the Committee may wish to consider the role and weight to be afforded to other regional and sub-regional strategies (LEP/LIP/Sustainable Community Strategies etc) in dealing with such cross boundary policy issues and guiding Core Strategy policy development where they have spatial dimension.

3.18  Resources

3.19  Whilst the South Worcestershire authorities welcome the opportunity to revisit RSS housing requirements and increasingly see the benefits of strong sub-regional alliances on planning issues, we are conscious that the stripping out of the regional tier and the loss of the County Structure Plan function has served to remove a significant amount of capacity and important expertise with respect to evidence gathering and policy development on strategic issues. This is particularly so in Malvern Hills, which as a second tier authority, in planning terms we have relied heavily on the Structure Plan policies. Sub-regional groupings, such as that which exists in South Worcestershire, are willing to undertake such work sub-regionally and work with strategic partners such as Worcestershire County Council however, consideration should be given to the resource and expertise demands that this shift in responsibility creates.

"The likely effectiveness of the Government's plan to incentivise local authorities to accept new housing development and the nature and level of the incentives that will need to be put in place to ensure an adequate long-term of housing"

3.20  The South Worcestershire authorities generally welcome the outline proposals to provide an incentive based around the retention of Council tax receipts for new housing completed for up to six years. With respect to areas where strategic levels of growth are required such receipts could be significant and have a significant bearing upon enabling development to be assimilated alongside existing communities and to address infrastructure concerns and pressures.

3.21  However, we have a number of concerns and queries which the Committee is invited to consider.

3.22  Timing and infrastructure provision

3.23  Incentive payments may be used to support community and physical infrastructure provision however such incentive payments will only come forward once development has been delivered (i.e. completed and occupied). In the case of South Worcestershire it has been an ongoing concern of the three local authorities that key infrastructure needs to be provided "up front" to enable strategic developments to go ahead and the identified scale of infrastructure requirements are such that developer contributions alone will not secure the provision of minimum levels of essential infrastructure.

3.24  Furthermore, if the Community Infrastructure Levy does come forward this is dependent upon having an adopted Core Strategy policy which also puts back the gathering of contributions for essential infrastructure to later in the development process and risks some early or "off-plan" developments, which may be significant, not contributing to CIL.

3.25  Given this situation the only apparent way forward would be local authorities to consider borrowing "up-front" in lieu of incentive payments. In South Worcestershire the scale of the apparent infrastructure funding gap, when linked to the possibility of a 20 year delivery profile for housing, questions marks over other sources of public match funding (such as RFA), and development viability issues mean that borrowing at this level is unlikely to be a viable option for district councils.

3.26  There is a pressing need to consider creative options for the range of agencies and government departments involved in the formulation and delivery of Infrastructure Delivery Plans (IDPs - such as the South Worcestershire IDP which is being piloted with PAS involvement) to work collectively on the infrastructure funding and delivery in the light of the receipt of longer term incentive payments.

3.27  Timing of incentive payments/genuine incentive mechanism

3.28  As stated above the delivery of strategic levels of housing and individual sites may involve a significant lead-in period and lag between the decision to bring forward housing and its delivery on the ground. Local authorities need to have some certainty regarding the longevity of the scheme and that the incentives will ultimately be forthcoming, and not be subject to a further change in legislation before housing is delivered.

3.29  Additionally, we are conscious that an incentive scheme (such as the previous HPDG scheme) could simply reward housing delivery which is already in the pipeline and would have happened regardless of the incentive scheme.

3.30  We are also conscious that the development industry may view such incentive payments as an automatic development subsidy payment which could be argued to reduce developer contributions for essential "up-front infrastructure".

3.31  Probity/Commitment to Plan based delivery of housing

3.32  Given existing national Government guidance regarding the delivery of housing there will be circumstances where local authorities will wish to consider expediting the release of land for housing in order to remedy a shortfall in housing land supply however, measured. This could reasonably be achieved outside of the LDF process.

3.33  However, local communities need to be assured through the processes involved and codes of conduct that there can be no perception of local authorities selling permissions in lieu of significant incentive payments and that those authorities which commit to the delivery of housing through the plan led process will not ultimately lose out in the incentive based system.

3.34  Cross Boundary issues

3.35  We have already stated above that there will be a need for agencies and government departments to work collectively over IDP implementation having regard to the possibility of incentive payments. Given the existence of situations where Council Tax receipts may be collected for new development in an adjacent local authority area to the host urban centre there would appear to be a need for guidance or recommendations regarding joint working and how much income will be retained by District Council sin two tier authority areas.

"The arrangements which should be put in place to ensure appropriate co-operation between local planning authorities on matters formally covered by regional spatial strategies"

3.36  We have already suggested that consideration should be given to the role and weight to be afforded to other regional and sub-regional strategies in the absence of RSS (paragraphs 3.11 to 3.17 refer).

3.37  Across the West Midlands the 33 local authorities have agreed to continue co-operation through the West Midlands Councils organisation. This should provide a basis to broker cross boundary arrangements and share best practice, particularly in specialists areas of policy previously covered by RSS where no one authority has all the necessary expertise.

3.38  As stated above the provision of adequate community and physical infrastructure is a critical issue for South Worcestershire, particularly transportation infrastructure. We are conscious that local infrastructure requirements can be of national and regional importance where they have a bearing upon investment decisions and provision on the wider network, such as the motorway and rail networks. Clearly, the RSS by integrating with the RTS provided a mechanism for addressing both wider and local network demands which were articulated in the associated Implementation Plan. Whilst other strategies and plans may have a role in setting out sub-regional intentions regarding infrastructure provision it remains unclear, in the absence of RSS, how and where competing demands and priorities will be resolved for the region wide transportation network whilst allowing local input.

"The adequacy of proposals already put forward by Government, including a proposed duty to co-operate and the suggestion that Local Enterprise Partnerships may fulfil a planning function."

3.39  The South Worcestershire authorities have supported proposals for the Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership and await a response to our submission. We consider there is a significant role for such partnerships in establishing sub-regional priorities and proposals, particularly in relation to infrastructure provision. However, we understand that various models for the composition of partnerships are being proposed around the country and it would be premature to suggest at this time that partnerships universally should have a planning role. Furthermore, care should be taken, given the various models proposed and areas covered, not to undermine the intentions to enable local growth agendas to be developed by attributing over riding planning functions to new major sub-regional/regional groupings.

"How the data and research collated by the now-abolished Regional Authority Leaders' Board should be made available to local authorities and what arrangements should be put in place to ensure effective updating of that research and collection of further research on matters crossing local authority boundaries."

3.40  Given recent advice that RSS evidence remains a material consideration in the preparation of LDF documents and the development of local housing aspirations it is essential that this evidence continues to be made available to local authorities in a free and accessible form. It is accepted that the West Midlands Councils organisation does not have the resources to assist in accessing data or its interpretation. However, as a minimum, data sets and related reports produced by regional bodies up to their demise should be made available on-line, along with evidence submitted by third parties to any associated Examination in Public.

3.41  In paragraph 3.19 we have already raised concerns over the shifting of research and policy development requirements from the regional level to the sub-regional level without consideration being given to the additional demands this creates for resources and specialist expertise.

3.42  Whilst there have been misgivings regarding certain aspects of the RSS process, the West Midlands has displayed a positive and strong track record over a number of years with respect to gathering data, monitoring and sharing information. This has resulted in a wealth of evidence to support understanding of past regional performance, projections of likely activity and the identification of both regional and sub-regional issues. It would be to the detriment of LDF work and wider strategy work if this resource was not maintained and carried forward, albeit in a stream-lined form to reflect resource constraints. The Government should be invited to consider how it can support this process. The issue is pressing. Whilst interim arrangements have been put in place in the West Midlands failure to secure a sustainable research and monitoring mechanism will hamper the continuity of regional data and gathering of essential local data to feed the process.

September 2010

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