An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

Development Plans – Is it time they joined the dodo?

March 11th, 2013

The development plan has been the cornerstone of planning decisions for as long as most people can remember. As students we were always taught that the development plan and planning decisions were inseparable – a mantra reinforced by successive changes to legislation that have placed development plans as the starting point for all decisions.

Yet in recent years the development plan seems in many places to have lost its place on the desk of development control officers. That’s not to say that development plans have ever been a ‘must read’ for development control planners – in our experience, many planners outside of local plan departments have never really held much regard for the development plan. However, as development control officers have moved into a new era of development management, the disconnect has become more pronounced.

The criticisms of development plans are well rehearsed, but still worth repeating. Despite protestations from the Clear English society, most plans remain woolly, cut and paste jobs of badly worded national guidance but with inferior grammar. Not current national guidance, of course. As development plans take an unfeasibly long time to prepare they are typically inconsistent with prevailing national guidance within weeks of being published.

The strength of development plans ought to be in providing a clear steer on local development. However, all too often the assessments of employment land, retail need and housing numbers upon which they are based are woefully out of date. Even when they are not, they often display a dazzling ignorance of the real world. Almost every development plan zones vast areas of land for inward industrial investment despite the fact thateven our indigenous manufacturing is on the wane. Virtually no development planin the country identifies areas for trade counters and car garages even though they form a significant part of our traditional industrial areas. Large sites continue to be allocated for bulky goods retailing when anyone in the industry will tell you that in many regions of the UK there is now significant oversupply of space for such activities.

The lack of commerciality indevelopment plans and in some development plan departments is truly astounding. Indeed, the only commerciality that seems to stray into the ivory towers of local plan departments these days seems to be where local authority land is concerned. That the local authority owns a site apparently makes it ideal for all sorts of valuable development.

So where does the effort in preparing local plans go? I am sure that there are some officers working incredibly hard behind the scenes to put these documents together. However, one really has to question the balance of effort expended between the content and the branding, inane photographs and translating the index into multifarious languages. While there has always been a question mark over the realism of development plans, prior to the 2004 Planning and Compensation Act there was at least the opportunity to bring areality check to the plans through cross examination of local plan officers and objectors at local plan inquiries.

The fear of having to defend policies at inquiry against the onslaught of a rabid QC was a sure-fire incentive to make sure that the policies and allocations of a plan were written with a semblance of sense. It was bloody and painful but the end result was a plan that, at least for the few months following its adoption, could be said to be reasonably realistic. If the Local Plan inquiry was Schwarzenegger then the LDF / LDP process that came in following the 2004 Act was Mr Muscle. On a bad day.

The Local Plan system was a no holds barred investigation into whether the draft plan was the best that could be achieved. The LDF system (Yes I know it has been renamed, but it is still the LDF to many..) starts with the assumption that the draft plan is the best that can be achieved and challenges objectors to prove that it isn’t “sound”. Pure Sir Humphrey. With some limited exceptions, the choice for the Inspector is accept the plan, kick part of it out or kick it all out.

In other words, the Inspector’s role is now not to facilitate delivery of the best plan for an areabut to test whether the plan is bad enough to be binned. In my experience of the’new’ system Inspectors and objectors do have a fair stab at scrutinising the local planning authority’s case. It is however a poke with a tickling stick rather than the cleaving of the broadsword of the previous system.

The result is that many of the plans coming through the system are not a sound platform for future development but glossy brochures of meaningless, anodyne drivel that is out of date the day it is published and woefully out of touch with either what business and developers or local people want and need. The yawning reality gap leftby development plans is now being filled, in England, by neighbourhood plans. Despite the requirement that a neighbourhood plan complies with the development plan for an area, in those areas where they are being progressed you would be forgiven for thinking that they are designed to replace it.

It seems then that the development plan in its current form is an endangered species – and while development plans officers remain in their ivory towers oblivious to the real world around them, it is not a species that many people outside of local plans departments are particularly keen to protect. Unless something is done quickly to make the development plan system up to date, relevant and realistic, then it is surely headed the way of the dodo.