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Issues at the vanguard of forward planning and local plan preparation within the regional sphere

A key issue within the world of forward planning, plan preparation and plan examination is the Duty to Co-Operate (DtC). I shall seek to address the relevance of the DtC and how this may affect many City Regions primarily due to the effect of metropolitan hubs. The West Midlands is currently in the DtC spot light and so I shall hone in on the region to provide structure and put issues into context.

Since the Localism Act [2011] was introduced it included a statutory DtC in relation to the planning of sustainable development, which includes a requirement, embedded within the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act [2004], for local authorities to ‘engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis’ in the preparation of development plans.

Looking at the Duty to Co-operate from a legal perspective specifically, there are two aspects which are being tested by Inspectors;

(i) The Duty to Co-operate must in the first instance be tested in terms of ‘process’. The duty is incapable of modification at an Examination; therefore this is one of the first things that has to be examined because, if the legal requirement is not met, the Inspector must recommend non-adoption of the plan.

(ii) The second test is in the respect of collaborative joint working approach and its soundness. This is primarily concerned with the ‘positively prepared’ and ‘effectiveness’ soundness tests set out in paragraph 182 of the Framework.

The NPPF also makes clear that Local Plans should be prepared based upon a strategy which seeks to meet objectively assessed housing needs, including unmet requirements from neighbouring Authorities where it is reasonable to do so.

Since the revocation of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) there has been no top down housing requirement imposed upon Local Authorities (LAs) which has resulted in a requirement for them to calculate their own Objectively Assessed Need (OAN).

Some LAs have been finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate their own needs which has triggered the requirement for them to engage with the DtC, some successful and some not, the not so successful is generally a result of national policy i.e. Green Belt or where there are political issues. In addition to these complexities we have a regional issue which is as a result of need arising from metropolitan areas i.e. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol etc.

Taking Birmingham as an example, a number of industry peers over recent weeks have published commentary in relation to the inspector’s interim findings into the examination of their Local Plan (LP), a process in which Richborough Estates was heavily involved. Matters arising from the Inspector’s interim letter are as follows;

(i) Objectively Assessed Housing Need; it was concluded that the City Council’s existing evidence was non NPPF / PPG compliant. The housing requirement should be 112,000, far higher than the City Councils estimate of 84,000. This higher target includes upward adjustment so that labour force supply can match projected job growth, and worsening market signals including affordability and overcrowding.

(ii) Sustainability Appraisal; the inspector confirmed that there was a breach of the SA Directive and that the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) had failed to provide reasons for selecting two strategic development sites which would be removed from the Green Belt. There was also no explanation of the change between considering a range of between 5-10,000 dwellings for an SUE and the preferred option of 5,000 dwellings. 

(iii) Duty to Co-Operate; the first of the two tests have been passed however there is a considerable amount of work required by Birmingham City Council if they’re to pass the second test ‘soundness’ in respect of the outcome of co-operation. The inspector suggests a mechanism is required to ensure that the unmet need is met however he cannot specify how much land should be allocated by other LPAs nor can he await other plans being adopted. However he has requested the Stage 3 report of the Strategic Housing Needs Study (SHNS) for the re-opening of the examination so that the scale of the need and the extent to which it can be met is ‘definitively established’.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are seen by many as a vehicle in which to deal with unmet needs so as to satisfy the legal requirements under the DtC. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) have been preparing a Spatial Plan for Recovery and Growth (SPRG), underpinned by an evidence base comprising of a Joint Strategic Housing Needs Study (SHNS), Employment Land Study and Sustainability Appraisal (SA). The work must be applauded however as a non-statutory body the evidence will never be properly assessed / tested.

Many of the LAs within the region, whom have plans well advanced, are suggesting that they’ll agree to an early review if more land is required to accommodate the needs arising from Birmingham. It would appear that this is being endorsed by planning inspectors i.e. Lichfield, report available for download here. If LAs subsequently fail to review plans in a timely fashion then their housing policies would become out of date and a case could be argued for the release of additional land. This argument does however become somewhat academic and rather pointless given that Green Belt policy will prevail and this will be the same within many of the City Regions if the same stance is taken.

So where precisely does this leave us?

If all inspectors fail to grapple with Green Belt policy whether that be in the West Midlands or elsewhere in the country we’ll inevitably encounter a situation whereby reviews will be postponed and agreements never reached. Statements made by Councillors are testament to this as they already intimate that they will repel any unmet need being located within their own authority once their own plans become adopted. It would appear as though the issue is being kicked into the long grass and the unmet need will become a number that will be passed around LAs like pass the parcel.

This could become known nationwide as ‘doing a Birmingham’ which would be regrettable for the planning and development industries and the wider economy.  It also runs counter to the bold claims made by local politicians and other stakeholders as without adequate housing the economic potential will be inhibited.

It is crucial that the planning inspectorate, politicians and the planning profession as a whole demonstrate professional integrity and grasp the nettle once and for all in respect of making the bold and responsible decisions needed on the Green Belt. Many professionals would agree that Green Belt policy is choking growth and it should therefore undergo a full review immediately. The Adams Institute report entitled The Green Noose: An analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform makes for very interesting reading indeed.

It will be crucial that the BDP inspector’s demands the stage 3 report before re-opening the examination into the BDP, without it the plan examination must be suspended. The request for the additional work should enable the scale of housing need and extent to which it can be met to be definitively established. We have a very interesting year ahead of us and it’s doubtful that all of Birmingham’s neighbouring Green Belt authorities will accept the City’s unmet need which equates to a staggering 60,000 dwellings. Perhaps Birmingham should be doing more within their own Green Belt boundaries to facilitate the economic growth they aspire to. If the City were a little more ambitious and released more land from the Green Belt the developments could even cross subsidise stalled inner city sites with monies generated by contributions. Thus the economic impact and regeneration benefits are compounded. The same could also be said within other City Regions such as Manchester…….etc. etc.

One final matter in which to conclude is with regard to Core Strategies and LPs which have already been adopted pre NPPF.  Many strategies were based upon housing figures derived by former Regional Strategies and not based upon an OAN. Where these circumstances exist LPAs should be encouraged to stop all work on allocation DPDs and revisit their requirements and / or any requirement arising from a metropolitan hub within their City Region so that consideration can be given to any unmet need early on in the plan period and not towards the end of a plan period.

Is our current planning and political system capable of averting the looming housing shortage crisis?  We all have a responsibility to make sure they do.

Robert Mitchell MRTPI
Planning Manager,
Richborough Estates

23 January 2015