Wrexham is riding on a wave of celebration, having won promotion to the English Football League, but it may have also relegated economic development and housing delivery to the non-league after councillors voted by a slim majority not to adopt their own Local Development Plan (LDP).
The plan allocated preferred development sites for much-needed homes for local people, as well as business, retail and leisure uses. It was the culmination of 11 years of work for council planning officers and in excess of £150,000 in consultant fees alone.
But Wrexham isn’t on its own in tearing up plans or putting the adoption of LDPs on hold. The Home Builders Federation monitors the adoption of Local Plans, and by April, more than 50 local authorities had either abandoned or delayed progress on their Local Plans.
Changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) proposed by the government have on the one hand fuelled local authority uncertainty about their LDPs and whether they will meet potential new guidance and, on the other, provided an excuse for objectors to challenge or stop what is in train often after years of cost and public resources, and with no real accountability for the cost of the delays.
Since the proposals were published in December 2022, housebuilders have highlighted the proposed changes as an additional obstacle to meeting housing numbers set by the government. Developers and investors around the country have raised very real concerns about the level of uncertainty that has been introduced into the planning system and the impact that this will have on decisions to invest. L&G recently closed its modular housebuilding factory in Selby, West Yorkshire, citing planning delays as one of the major factors that prevented the factory from delivering sufficient orders to become profitable.
Regeneration projects are a driver for attracting investment, creating jobs and helping meet housing needs. They help deliver much-needed new infrastructure and public projects such as schools and GP surgeries through local authority investment and Section 106 agreements. Increasingly they are also key to decarbonising the economy and, if undertaken successfully, they deliver skills and opportunities for local people and improve economic and health outcomes.
Drawing up a major planning application for such projects is costly for developers and local authorities and uses already stretched council planning department resources. The time taken to secure a consent has increased significantly in recent years, with the uncertain and protracted nature of decision-making adding risk and stifling investment. Quite simply, if regeneration doesn’t happen, all the benefits for the local community and council are lost.
If we are serious about growing the UK economy, we must recognise that large-scale regeneration projects are critical to securing large inward investment, and that LDPs need to be regularly refreshed to accommodate them. Such projects cannot be delivered overnight: they require long-term commitment and effective collaboration between the public and private sectors.
An LDP helps initiate the dialogue between local authorities and developers: it provides a framework against which investment and development risk can be assessed, and a backdrop for schemes to be promoted. Without them we move into ‘planning by appeal’, which benefits nobody: it is costly and risky for developers but also doesn’t allow local authorities to plan their growth comprehensively or sustainably.
The uncertainty created by the NPPF proposals has real-world implications for developers, investors and local authorities and the communities they serve. Not delivering regeneration means not delivering homes, jobs, skills and innovation, but above all it means not delivering growth.
Lynda Shillaw is chief executive of Harworth Group