In the absence of a new planning package from the government, the revocation of the RS could slow housebuilding yet further
Few letters from a new secretary of state can have caused such a stir as did Eric Pickles’ of 27 May, in which he made clear the coalition government’s intention to revoke regional spatial strategies or RSSs (in fact these are now RSs since being “joined up” with regional economic strategies).
On 6 July, this is what happened. Pickles used his executive powers under the Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 to formally revoke all regional strategies. Note, however, that this does not affect the London Plan, which continues as before.
So where does that leave us? We no longer have any level of policy within the development plan above those made at the local level. The development plan for planning application purposes will now comprise local development plan documents where adopted, saved policies and any “old-style” plans that have not lapsed.
Since 27 May, local planning authorities have been in a difficult position – having to take account of the declared intention to revoke RSs, but with the RS still forming part of the development plan. Uncertainty at that level is now over, but questions are being asked about what happens next and what the effect will be on local decision making of the revocation of the RS.
Resolutions to grant, which were heading towards approval, may have to go back to committee
As well as notifying local authorities of the revocation, the government has issued some limited guidance on these issues. There will be an immediate point to deal with in the case of planning applications not yet determined – even where they have been to committee and a resolution made.
The fact of this potentially very significant change in the development plan may mean that resolutions to grant, which were heading towards approval, may have to go back to committee. This is not inevitable, but the question must be asked and properly answered or a third-party challenge may be justified.
This could be the case where, say, a housing site with no local allocation is being supported by officers because of the need to meet RS targets. With those targets now swept away, how should the local planning authority approach that application?
Of course the “from on high” imposition of housing targets was the key reason why the RS has been abandoned – this does not sit comfortably in the new world of localism – but if these targets are no more, what figures does the local planning authority have to work to? Well, the guidance tells us that local planning authorities will have to make the right level of provision in their areas, and must continue to provide a five-year housing land supply.
If what the guidance calls the “housing ambition” is now left to the local planning authority, will we find that in some areas those ambitions are pitched rather low?
Local planning authorities must decide for themselves how they want to approach this. Some will stick with the RS figures, but some will seek to move far away from them. If what the guidance calls the “housing ambition” is now left to the local planning authority, will we find that in some areas those ambitions are pitched rather low? It seems that housebuilders fear this will happen, and with some justification.
One of the benefits of RS was the ability to plan at a level higher than the local. This has sometimes resulted in areas providing more than they might themselves need, in order to pick up a need elsewhere in the region. So just as some districts may see this as a way of cutting their numbers, others may discover that they need to find more land for housing than previously was the case. Keeping on side with the neighbours could be an even better idea today than it was yesterday!
The big risk for all of us is that this may well result in development slowing down even further, particularly as the revocation of the RS comes without the benefit of the “whole package” for planning that we now desperately need to see.
This, we are told, will ease our concerns and make clear how local communities will favour development that they see as bringing benefits to their area. It is to be hoped that this full picture will become clear sooner rather than later.
Beverley Firth is a partner in the planning team at law firm Mills & Reeve LLP. For further information please contact her direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.