Earlier this month, chancellor George Osborne announced that a deadline would be set for local authorities to put their local plans in place. In a written statement to parliament last week, planning and housing minister Brandon Lewis confirmed that "in cases where no local plan has been produced by early 2017 … [the communities secretary] will intervene to arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people, to accelerate production of a local plan".
Lewis said league tables would be published showing the progress made by councils on their local plans. However, he did not further define how far councils would have to have progressed with a local plan in order to be considered to have "produced" one and avoid government intervention.
In a letter to the Planning Inspectorate preceding Lewis's written statement, communities secretary Greg Clark had praised the "commendable pragmatism and flexibility" of some planning inspectors in their examination of local plans. However, Clark said he had also seen "recent examples of where councils are being advised to withdraw plans without being given the option to undertake further work to address the shortcomings identified at examination". He said it was "critical that inspectors approach the examination from the perspective of working pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound local plan".
In his written statement, Lewis echoed Clark's call for the Planning Inspectorate to provide support to councils in the examination process. He said planning inspectors should highlight significant issues with plans "at an early enough stage to give councils a full opportunity to respond" and reiterated government planning guidance that committing to an early review of a local plan could allow it to proceed to adoption without "matters which are not critical to the plan's soundness or legal competence as a whole" from causing unnecessary delay.
Lewis also reiterated that the National Planning Policy Framework requires neighbouring authorities to work together across housing market areas to provide the land necessary for new homes and said the government would "strengthen planning guidance to improve the operation of the duty to co-operate on key housing and planning issues".
Planning expert Lucy Close of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: "Although many will not disagree with the sentiment behind Brandon Lewis's statement, there are concerns that this threat from the government is not as strong as it could be and does not provide the certainty that the development industry needs. The statement does not provide a specific deadline in 2017 nor any specification as to what stage local plans need to be at by that unknown date."
"A strict reading of the wording provides that councils just need to publish a local plan by early 2017 but it can then take almost two years after that stage for a plan to be adopted, meaning that the aim of nationwide adoption of local plans would not be achieved until at least 2018," said Close.
"It is also not clear who will write the plans if the government steps in creating uncertainty as to the 'teeth' the threat, especially given the current resourcing issues at PINS. The emphasis on the role of early reviews of local plans to assist in speedy adoption also raises obvious concerns as to how local plans can meet the medium and long term needs of local communities," she said.
In a separate announcement last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that the government would raise the threshold under which local planning authorities are deemed to be 'underperforming' in the speed at which they decide major planning applications.
The Growth and Infrastructure Act gave the communities secretary the option to designate any local authority that is not "adequately performing its function of determining planning applications" as underperforming, allowing planning applications to be submitted directly to the Planning Inspectorate.
Last summer the government increased the threshold for designating councils based on speed to 40% or fewer major planning applications being determined within the statutory period, or any longer period agreed with developers, over a two year assessment period. According to a document laid before parliament yesterday, the threshold has now been increased further, to 50%.
The new criteria will take effect following the statutory 40 day parliamentary consideration period, provided neither House resolves not to approve it.