The government’s well-intentioned introduction of a ‘duty to co-operate’ between councils is a serious problem


All too often the government (in the form of the Treasury) sees planning as a regulatory process, an obstacle to growth and development. But the real benefit of planning lies in positive plan-making that enables and secures new development, regeneration and renewal.  And that’s where we are letting ourselves down, at least so far as England is concerned.

We all have experience of stodgy handling of planning applications and an obstructive approach to development from councillors, officers and the general public. Through the current planning reforms, we are seeing some positive changes and it’s certainly rewarding for developers to experience a can-do attitude from planning officers.

There are growing examples of a positive reception for applications – although this is best evidenced in the decision letters of inspectors and the secretary of state on appeal. After all, the lack of up-to-date development plans and the absence of an adequate five-year land supply are bound to create opportunities for some. But that’s no way to run a planning system and the control of development is really only part of the picture. 

The pace of progress is affected by the speed at which the slower councils in any grouping are prepared to move forward

There are numerous challenges to be overcome in producing development plans, not least in garnering an adequate evidence base and persuading elected representatives to follow what it shows in setting development levels. It is increasingly apparent that one of the key obstacles here and now is the duty to co-operate, introduced through the 2011 Act. This requires local planning authorities to work in a cross-boundary manner in collaboration with their neighbouring authorities. 

The problem is that it has largely removed local control over the plan-making process and placed a serious brake on the speed of preparation. If a particular district is ready to move ahead with its plan, it needs to demonstrate full and meaningful collaboration with its neighbours - it needs to have engaged with its surrounding authorities over a period of time. But each of them must in turn be in active collaboration with its neighbours. So the pace of progress is affected by the speed at which the slower councils in any grouping are prepared to move forward.

The result is an ad hoc approach to plan-making with councils only slowly aligning themselves and a growing number of those who have tried to move forward quickly finding that their plan is held to be unlawful and unable to proceed.  

The duty was intended to reintroduce a strategic level of planning into what is essentially a local-only process. However it’s cumbersome and patently difficult for individual councils to deal with. What we really need is a statutory framework for strategic planning, grouping councils in a clear and logical manner and enabling them to move forward with confidence that they’re doing the right thing. 

I certainly wouldn’t advocate a further huge shake-up of the planning system – we’ve had almost constant change to the system since 2003 or thereabouts - but as we approach the general election in May 2015, the main parties should be giving serious consideration to putting a more fully formed basis for strategic or cross-boundary planning on the statute book. 

Ian Tant is a senior partner at Barton Willmore