The flagship proposal in the Housing White Paper: "Every area will be covered by a plan" could finally make a reality of the vision for local development frameworks set out in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.
This won't be the first time that a government of one political hue has made a policy work that was introduced by a predecessor administration.
What I liked about the LDF system was that it envisaged that local plans would be working documents; not a single plan that took ten years to produce and then had a 20 year life span but a living, flexible document that could be updated as an area's needs changed and as the public and private sectors worked together to put in place detailed briefs for opportunity areas. The trouble was, the system was too complicated and the soundness test too rigid.
But this is set to change. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill already contains powers for central government to write a plan where a local authority fails to do so. There's the stick. But the White paper offers some carrots; it promises to make it easier for authorities to write plans. Gone will be the need for a single plan: authorities will have flexibility as to how they provide strategic policies whether in their own plan, a plan produced jointly with another authority or in a spatial development strategy prepared by a combined authority or mayor (no, don't even think about suggesting that we might call them Regional Strategies!). The strategic policies will include allocations needed to deliver the area's housing requirement. More detailed matters will be addressed through area action plans and neighbourhood plans. So far so very LDF.
The soundness test will be reformed so that it requires plans to contain AN appropriate strategy for the area rather than THE appropriate strategy.
Another proposal to speed up plan making is the introduction of a standardised approach to the assessment of housing need. The Local Plans Expert Group's report noted that the requirement for plans to meet objectively assessed needs was one of the main reasons why plan preparation is difficult and slow so a standardised approach to assessing housing need is a welcome reform. However, working out what the standardised approach should be is not proving quite so easy with the Government currently asking the development industry for its views on how a simple OAN test should work.
But if Gavin Barwell, the Housing and Planning Minister, is to be believed, and he has made it clear that his overriding objective is to ensure that every area has a plan, he will leave a powerful legacy. The plan-led system has been in place since its introduction by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 but the absence of plans, the appeal system and even the courts have conspired to ensure that "plan-led" is more often than not observed in the breach. In Kebbell Developments Limited v. Leeds City Council , a case involving a challenge to a local plan, the High Court said "A developer could argue that […] even if the grant of planning permission would be out of tune with the [neighbourhood plan], planning permission should not be refused because 'material considerations indicate otherwise'". This is of course the second limb of the statutory test but hardly a ringing endorsement of the plan-led approach.
A proper plan-led approach will be welcome but developers and landowners will need to adapt their planning strategies. If every area does have an up to date plan, there will be no more excuses for not complying with it; they will have to be far more proactive in ensuring that their sites are allocated in the plan, this will mean engaging with communities, with neighbourhood forums and parish councils. If it works, the result will be worth it: greater certainty, greater community support and consents granted more quickly.