The government recently consulted on a revised approach to local plans, with the consultation document making frequent use of the word ‘streamline’ and its derivatives.

David Churchill

David Churchill

As the notes explain, local plans can be lengthy, complex and difficult to understand without specialist planning knowledge. They also take, on average, seven years to prepare, which means they can often become obsolete before they are implemented. As a result, just 35% of local planning authorities have adopted a local plan in the last five years, and few are at an advanced stage of preparing a new one. This creates uncertainty for communities and delays necessary development.

It is difficult not to support the government’s intention that plans should be simpler to understand and use, with the process of production being shorter. However, whether the new approach will be enough to deliver a clear vision for future growth is doubtful as it does not seek to tackle the main impediments to plan adoption – namely, local politics and community resistance.

The introduction of the gateway system for review is one that could have a significant positive effect on plan-making. However, it will only work if the inputs and outputs of the process are clearly publicised and decisions that follow them are logical and consistent.

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Source: shutterstock / Matchou

Equally, the emphasis on creating visions is positive, but it is important that they address the relevant communities directly. Generic visions do little to inspire confidence or garner local support.

However, if these visions can demonstrate to local communities that the issues they face can be addressed through the plan-making approach, then they stand a far better chance of delivering and reducing resistance.

Community-based visions

With the availability and quality of demographic statistics and modelling software, alongside detailed geographical information systems, local plans can work to deliver what communities need within the life cycle of the plan. There will always be objection to elements of plans, but there is a chance that the delivery of community-based visions can combat the effects of the (few) genuine NIMBYs.

As last year’s rebellion by backbench Conservative MPs and the consternation that followed has demonstrated, many local communities are resistant to centrally imposed housing targets. They resent an algorithm put in place by a Whitehall-based civil servant determining the future of their town or village, even more so if that information is out of date.

Strategic planning, if it is to gain community support, must respond to the needs of specific neighbourhoods and present development as a solution to the individual issues that they face.

Ultimately, constructive involvement from local communities could also reduce the dangerous politicising of housing distribution; unpopular housing would no longer be ‘dumped’ in the wards of opposition councillors. Instead, the acceptance of development to address a community’s need would be seen as a political achievement, with councillors taking credit for new development and the benefits that it brings.

This is no utopian dream. A well-informed, collaborative approach to housing delivery works successfully elsewhere in the world and has the potential to reform our attitudes and approach to housebuilding here.

David Churchill is a planning partner in Carter Jonas’s London office