Last year the Government gained new powers to intervene in the local plan-making process, aimed at enabling the planning system to deliver more housing at a quicker pace. Powers in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 will, once in force, give the Government further opportunities for intervention.

Three out of four recent Government interventions have been instigated following requests made by MPs: with no formal role for MPs defined in this process, what form has this influence taken, and what can we expect as powers of intervention are extended?

Setting strategic priorities: local plan progress

Local plans (which can include core strategies) are the key development plan documents through which local planning authorities (LPAs) can set out a vision for future development. Each plan should address a set of strategic priorities, including housing requirements.

While the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) directs that each LPA should produce a local plan for its area, not every LPA has a plan in place: the Planning Inspectorate’s spreadsheet of local plan (core strategy) progress can be viewed online.

The Government highlighted in February that “over 40 per cent of local planning authorities do not have a plan that meets the projected growth in households in their area.” With a view to speeding up the delivery of more housing the Government turned its attention to the local plan making process.

How can the Government intervene?

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 gave the Government a new power to issue a “holding direction” in relation to a local plan. This means that a local plan can’t proceed any further towards being adopted by the LPA until the Secretary of State has decided whether to use his formal powers to “call in” the plan for his own approval.

The holding direction builds on the call in power already in existence under section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, whereby if the Secretary of State thinks that a local plan is “unsatisfactory”, he can modify, approve or reject it.

MPs and the use of intervention powers

The planning process generally offers MPs limited opportunity for intervention; however, a formal process has to be followed in which an MP has no specified role.

Since the introduction of the NPPF in 2012, there have been four reported cases where the Secretary of State has intervened in local plans using the above powers. In three of these four cases powers have been instigated following representations made by MPs. It’s also notable that these cases also raised issues of housing allocations, particularly in green belt areas.

o        Bradford City Council

Philip Davies MP raised concern that Bradford City Council’s Core Strategy proposed 11,000 homes to be built on green belt land, before exhausting all the brownfield land in the area. Following this request to intervene the Government issued a holding direction in October 2016. The holding direction was removed by Government in a letter dated 28 March 2017. This means that the Council can now proceed to make its plan. The Government’s letter acknowledged that the core strategy itself did not propose alteration to green belt boundaries; that it had only indicated future changes could be made in future site allocations. The letter stated that in removing the holding direction the Secretary of State was “not accepting that the exceptional circumstances exist to justify the amendment of any specific Green Belt boundaries.” The Government emphasised that powers of intervention could again be used on any site allocations brought forward. Future proposed changes to planning policy and scope for possible future Government intervention were also highlighted to the Council.

o        Birmingham City Council

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP raised concern about a proposal for 6,000 new homes on green belt land in the Birmingham Development Plan 2031. The Government then issued a holding direction on 26 May 2016. In November 2016 the planning minister decided, having considered these concerns, that the council could proceed to adopt the plan, including the policy on the urban extension into the green belt. The plan has since been adopted.

o        Maldon District Council

The Chief Executive of Maldon District Council raised concerns about a planning inspector’s approach in finding the whole development plan unsound, at examination, because of its policies on traveller provision. In June 2015 the Secretary of State then called in the plan. On 6 March 2016 the Secretary of State determined that while the traveller policy was not consistent with national policy, it wasn’t proportionate to have found the whole plan unsound. He ordered the examination of the plan to be resumed – albeit with a different inspector, the original inspector having since retired. The plan has not yet been adopted.

o        North Somerset Council

In March 2015, following concerns raised by Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP, John Penrose MP and the Director of Development at North Somerset Council the Secretary of State ordered the housing requirement policy in the core strategy to be called in for his approval. In September 2015, the Housing Minister Brandon Lewis agreed with the Planning Inspector’s judgement about this policy and returned it to the council without modification. The policy was subsequently readopted.

It is not reported, however, how many requests have been made by MPs which were not then taken further.

More Government intervention to come?

The recently enacted Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 provides further scope for intervention in the local plan making process.

While there is no formal timetable for use of intervention powers, the February 2017 Housing white paper proposed the following criteria for future intervention, where:

  • the least progress in plan-making had been made;
  • policies in plans had not been kept up to date;
  • there was higher housing pressure; and
  • intervention would have the greatest impact in accelerating local plan production.

It emphasised that where LPAs are “not making sufficient progress on producing or reviewing their plans, the Government will intervene.”

While the previous use of intervention powers has been at the point where the local plan was close to adoption, this criteria suggests that the Government will be looking more closely at local plans that are struggling to get off the ground. It will interesting to follow what role, if any, an MP will play in triggering this process.

For more info see our briefing paper, Planning Reform Proposals, 12 July 2017 and Planning for Housing, 14 June 2017.