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

Written evidence from Land Use Consultants (ARSS 86)



Land Use Consultants' submission draws on our experience of work on RSSs in six regions.

RSSs did not "fail" because of top-down housing targets—they broke down because of the process.

Draft RSSs generally had the support of stakeholders in the regions, including local authorities.

The final versions of the RSSs published by the Secretary of State were often quite different, and with significantly increased housing numbers, and this is why the system broke down.

The housing component of RSSs was given too much weight and attention compared to all the other good and useful aspects of RSSs.

RSSs should have been subject to tests of soundness similar to LDDs, not fundamental re-writes.


There will be a continuing need for Sustainability Appraisal, Strategic Environmental Assessment, and Habitats Regulations Assessment, which need to address the scale of development as well as the location.

It will be as important to consider the social and economic implications of not delivering enough housing as it will the environmental implications of delivering housing.

It is highly likely that housing development will not reach the levels required to meet housing need—the strategic need for housing, as opposed to local needs, could well be downplayed.

Resource management (water, waste, minerals, renewable energy, habitats and landscapes, etc) requires a strategic and joined-up approach that cannot be left to local planning authorities alone.

Neighbouring authorities with different objectives (eg an urban authority abutting a rural one) may well find it difficult to co-operate, which could lead to inertia and desperately needed housing not happening.

Where the duty to co-operate breaks down, there is the possibility that, in the absence of any other body, the Secretary of State will have to take over, which would be back to centralised planning.

Although LEPs will have an economic focus, they must give due weight to SA, SEA and HRA and environmental objectives, in order to comply with the principles of sustainable development.

The wealth of regional data and research must not be lost but must be built upon, even if vested in bodies apart from Regional Assemblies, RDAs, or Regional Observatories.


1.2  Land Use Consultants (LUC) is a multi-disciplinary environmental consultancy with offices in London, Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburgh and over 100 staff. LUC's core disciplines include environmental planning, landscape planning, landscape design, ecology, and land management. LUC has provided a wide range of regional-level planning services for a variety of public bodies and organisations. This includes Sustainability Appraisal (SA) incorporating Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and/or Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) work for on Regional Spatial Strategies for:

East Midlands.

South West.

East of England.

Yorkshire & Humber.

1.3  Other recent regional planning contracts include research into Environmental Limits in the East Midlands on behalf of the East Midlands Development Agency (part-funded by Defra) and minerals apportionment work in the South East, Yorkshire & Humber, South West and West Midlands.

1.4  We therefore have considerable expertise and experience of the RSS preparation process and the legal requirements regarding their preparation.


1.5  RSSs are to be abolished. Ostensibly, this is because the new Government wishes to rid us of top down housing targets that were "imposed" upon local authorities and communities who did not want them.

1.6  But regional planning was not failing because of this. In preparing draft RSSs, regional planning bodies worked very hard gathering evidence and engaging with local authorities and other stakeholders to understand the needs, challenges and opportunities facing local communities. All were acutely conscious of the need to invest in housing, the economy, infrastructure and the environment for future well-being.

1.7  The result in almost all instances was a hard-fought but negotiated settlement that was presented to the previous Government as draft RSSs. Nearly all of the local authorities and many other stakeholders signed up to these and the housing figures they contained, albeit some more willing than others.

1.8  It was the next stage in the process where democracy and ownership broke down. It was clear to us that Examination Panels were under instructions to give considerable weight to household projections published on a rolling basis by CLG. Invariably these suggested that much higher housing numbers were required in RSSs than were provided for in draft RSSs.

1.9  As a result, most if not all Panels recommended to the Secretary of State considerable increases to the total dwelling figures in the RSSs. For example, in the South West:[124]

The draft RSS submitted on behalf of the region by the South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) provided for c. 460,000 net additional dwellings over the period 2006-26, an increase of some 20% in the total housing stock of the region over a 20 year period.

The Panel Report recommended a further c. 110,000 net additional dwellings (c. 2,850,000 in total), an increase in the total housing stock of 25% over the 20 year period.

The Secretary of State"s Proposed Changes to the draft RSS went one step further, recommending total net additional dwellings of c. 2,873,000, an increase of c. 26% over the period of the RSS.

1.10  As a result, the Secretary of State's Proposed Changes were c. 123,000 (29%) above the net additional dwellings recommended in the draft RSS, and 23,000 (4%) over those included in the Panel recommendations.

1.11  Unsurprisingly, this massive increase in dwellings caused considerable consternation in the region, and was a large part of the reason why there were tens of thousands of objections to the Proposed Changes.

1.12  It was our sense that the SWRA had gone as far as was acceptable to local authorities in the draft RSS. It is true to say that the Proposed Changes were more in line with household projections. But it was clear that local authorities did not think that the scale or pace of housing development proposed by the Secretary of State was acceptable, and many parties including ourselves had grave doubts about whether it was deliverable.

1.13  The result was that there was no longer any sense of ownership amongst regional bodies over the Proposed Changes RSS—whereas the draft RSS was supported by and large in the region, the Proposed Changes were not. This mood was exacerbated by other policies in the draft RSS, such as those relating to tough standards on carbon emissions, also being watered down by the Secretary of State.

1.14  In our view, it was a great shame and a missed opportunity that the draft RSSs were subject to such fundamental changes by the Secretary of State. The RSS preparation process became too focused on the delivery of housing. There is no doubt that housing needs do need to be met, and that there are significant social and economic implications of not doing so. However, planning is about balancing priorities and it is also about deliverability. The delivery of housing needs to be weighed against other material considerations, such as the protection and enhancement of the environment.

1.15  Unlike Local Development Documents (LDDs), which are subject simply to tests of soundness, RSSs could effectively be re-written by the Secretary of State. If similar tests of soundness had applied to RSSs, then we are sure that their passage to adoption would have been much smoother, and we would not be left with the strategic planning crisis that we now find ourselves in.

Implications of the abolition of regional house building targets for levels of housing development

1.16  Without RSSs we are left with a policy void. There is a desperate need for strategic planning - for making difficult decisions in the wider interest of the country. The housing crisis is not going to go away. If we are not careful, we will be left with local authority pitted against local authority. This is most likely to be the case where, as a historic quirk of administrative boundaries, any strategic growth of major settlements supported by a City Council will need to take place in neighbouring authorities, often more rural, and with different political priorities.

1.17  Since the announcement that RSSs were revoked, from our own experience we have seen delays to the preparation of a number of LDDs while the local authorities determine the housing targets they want. Recent articles in Planning magazine[125] quote a study undertaken by the National Housing Federation which found that over 85,000 homes have been taken out of local authority house building targets, while the Home Builders Federation has compiled figures indicating more than 100,000 homes have been removed.[126]

1.18  So in our view it is highly unlikely that the delivery of housing will reach the levels that are needed to deal with housing need, notwithstanding any incentives that local authorities will be given. The most vulnerable are those who are likely to suffer—those who cannot afford market housing.

1.5  Even in the absence of RSSs, there is a statutory obligation for housing targets and their distribution across local authorities to be subject to Strategic Environmental Assessment.[127] The consideration of "reasonable alternatives" is a requirement of the SEA Regulations:

The identification, description and evaluation of the likely significant effects on the environment of implementing reasonable alternatives taking into account the objectives and the geographical scope of the plan or programme (SEA Regulations 12(2)).

An outline of the reasons for selecting the alternatives dealt with (SEA Regulations Schedule 2(8)).

1.6  The inadequate consideration of reasonable alternatives in RSS preparation was the justification for the successful legal challenges on the adopted East of England Plan, and caused the Secretary of State to subject components of the South East Plan to further assessment.

1.7  The consideration of reasonable alternatives as far as housing is concerned falls into four main categories:

(i)  The scale of housing (how much housing needs to be delivered).

(ii)  The location of housing (where it should go).

(iii)  The standards applied to housing delivery (densities, design, etc).

(iv)  The phasing of housing (when should it be built).

1.8  It is important that local planning authorities consider all the above categories of reasonable alternatives when preparing their LDDs. In particular, they should consider the social, economic and environmental implications of different levels of housing. It is as crucial to understand the social and economic impacts of not delivering enough housing to meet strategic as well as local need, as it is to consider the environmental impacts of delivering the levels of housing that the local planning authorities would like to happen.

1.19  In numerous instances, reasonable alternatives for the distribution of housing development locations will need to cross local authority boundaries, due to housing market areas or travel to work areas (eg in south Bristol/North Somerset, north Bristol and South Gloucestershire or Stevenage/North Hertfordshire). Without the strategic considerations applied during preparation of RSSs, there is a risk that these sort of reasonable alternatives may not be tested.

Likely effectiveness of the Government's plan to incentivise local communities to accept new housing development

1.20  We suspect that the incentives will not prove to be a sufficient mechanism to deliver the scale of housing that is needed. It is not clear how it will work, or who will benefit. If the proceeds go to local authorities, there is no guarantee that those most likely to be impacted by housing development will receive adequate compensation.

1.21  Similarly, there is likely to be considerable difficulty in persuading local communities of the need to provide strategic housing that is not obviously linked to local needs. Examples include:

Hidden households.

Housing development required to support the local economy.

The delivery of strategically important housing development in locations that are more likely to reduce the need to travel and hence reduce carbon emissions and the need for costly investment infrastructure.

Provision for gypsies and travellers.

1.22  Those with an interest but without a voice (eg households who would like to move to a different community, for example to be closer to where they work), could easily be missed out from the equation.

1.23  In our view it is a policy fraught with risks. It will therefore be important that the tests of soundness applied to LDDs give considerable weight to housing needs assessments and to the household projections in order to determine whether the need for strategic housing development as well as local housing need is being met.

Appropriate cooperation between local planning authorities

1.24  LUC has considerable experience of planning for waste, minerals, renewable energy and the natural environment. Although there will always be a need for local policy responses, these are again strategic issues best dealt with at the sub-regional, if not regional scale. For example:

The National Character Areas, which have been defined by Natural England and break down the landscape character of England, a provide a useful strategic planning tool but bear no relationship to administrative boundaries.

River catchments often link a number of local authorities, and the protection and management of biodiversity often requires strategic planning for habitats across administrative boundaries, particularly given the need to allow biodiversity to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Development proposals in one local authority can have an impact downstream in another, or an impact on habitats and species outside the authority where the development is to take place (eg arising from abstraction for water supply or waste water treatment).

Planning for waste management facilities needs co-operation between local authorities in order to achieve efficient waste management, and to ensure strategic facilities that provide a service to a number of authorities are located in the most sustainable locations.

Minerals can only be worked where they are found (which is why counties such as Somerset provide strategic supplies to minerals to markets well beyond their boundaries), and many strategically significant renewable energy opportunities are dependent upon certain locational characteristics to be viable, and to minimise adverse impacts (eg on the landscape).

1.25  All the above needs strategic planning, which the RSSs were well placed to provide. In the absence of a national spatial strategy, there is a real risk that that Local Development Documents will not deliver what is needed. Existing Regional Aggregates Working Parties and Regional Technical Advisory Bodies (for waste) will have an important role to play, but the loss of the regional planning tier is likely to make things more rather than less difficult.

1.26  Planning for aggregates illustrates the point. The apportionment of a regional total to sub-regions (mineral planning authorities) can be controversial, and has benefited enormously from democratic scrutiny at RSS examinations in public. This was most recently the case with the review of Policy M3 in the South East Plan. Removal of the regional tier has in effect removed this scrutiny of options for apportioning aggregates. Ultimately this might frustrate the steady supply of aggregates to the building industry, something that has never happened before and which could seriously constrain economic growth.

Adequacy of proposed duty to co-operate and the suggestion that Local Enterprise Partnerships might fulfil a planning function

1.27  It is too early to say whether the proposed duty to co-operate is likely to be adequate without knowing how this duty might operate in practice. One would hope that most local planning authorities would take this duty seriously. However, there will always be some that do not see eye-to-eye.

1.28  For example, if local planning authorities are refusing to co-operate, or if their co-operation is not all that it should be, or simply is resulting in protracted and painfully slow plan preparation, when and in what form will the Secretary of State intervene? What powers will the Secretary of State have—will they just be an instruction to co-operation or could these extend to taking over the planning function? What will be the sanctions if local planning authorities continue to refuse to co-operate? Will there be third party rights to petition the Secretary of State if it is felt that co-operation is not what it should be?

1.29  This leaves so many unanswered questions that it is difficult to answer the question set. However, it implies that where co-operation is not what it should be, then the Secretary of State will intervene. If this intervention extends to taking over plan preparation, this almost brings us back to square one with the RSSs—which ultimately became the Secretary of State's plans, not those of the regions.

1.30  We are not in a position to comment in detail on whether it is appropriate for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to have a planning function. However, LEPs are supposed to be economically led with strong business interests/representation. In their work, we would not want to see a watering down of the weight given to the principles of sustainable development, not only reducing carbon emissions but also protection and enhancement of the natural and historic environment. LEPS will also need to be aware of their obligations to carry out SAs, SEAs, HRAs in accordance with European and national law, and to draw on these to inform the planning process.

Regional data and research

1.31  Regional bodies, whether Regional Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies, or Regional Observatories, have built up a tremendous amount of knowledge and data on the assets, challenges, opportunities, form and function of their regions and sub-regions.

1.32  It is essential that this work does not go to waste, and that continued collection, interpretation and monitoring takes place in a co-ordinated and consistent way, which goes beyond simply local planning authorities doing their own thing. This could take place at a functional sub-regional rather than a regional level, but the most important thing is that it happens.

September 2010

124   See Table 10.1 in Land Use Consultants in association with Collingwood Environmental Planning and Levett-Therivel Sustainability Consultants, South West Regional Spatial Strategy Proposed Changes. Sustainability Appraisal Final Report. July 2008. Back

125   Adding up home options. Planning. 20 August 2010. Back

126   Early court date for CALA homes hearing. www.PlanningResource.co.uk. 13 September 2010. Back

127   European Directive 2001/42/EC (the SEA Directive) "on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment" as transposed into UK law through "The Environmental Assessment of Plans and Regulations 2004" (SI 2004 No. 1633). Back

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