Blog: 15 December 2015Local Plan Powers for London Mayor & Combined Authorities

Bob McCurry

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Bob McCurry

Planning Director

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Like all Bills, the Housing and Planning Bill has now undergone a number of suggested alterations by ministers. One amendment would enable the Secretary of State to invite the Mayor of London or any Combined Authority to revise or prepare – essentially call-in – any development plan document within their local area, if it is considered that they are ‘failing or omitting to do anything it is necessary for them to do in connection with the preparation, revision or adoption of a development plan document’. This would include Core Strategies, Development Management Policies and Area Action Plans and the Council would be required to reimburse the Mayor of London or Combined Authority for any expenditure that they incur during this process.

Currently the Mayor of London’s powers primarily relate to referred planning applications and some might say that this is an ad hoc power that only addresses one portion of the overall planning process. While there is a requirement for the Mayor to be consulted on development plan documents in relation to their conformity with the London Plan, by enhancing these powers and allowing the Mayor and Combined Authorities to intervene in the production of a development plan documents, this could provide the strategic authorities with a full suite of intervention powers, throughout the overall plan-making and development control process.

Why has this been introduced? It’s clear that the government’s ‘Duty to cooperate’ requirements have caused delay to some Councils sufficiently progressing their development plan documents. With Neighbourhood Plans racing ahead and making very local decisions about housing provision, and the growing scope for later Local Plans to cause frustration as they overtake the provision in the Neighbourhood Plans, there is now a need for those Councils lagging behind to play ‘catch up’ or face the consequences of a development plan being thrust upon them.

In July 2015, Brandon Lewis said that 82% of authorities have now published a Local Plan, but added that the Government will intervene if a Local Plan was not produced by early 2017. Indeed, local authorities have had more than a decade to produce a Local Plan, and the percentage of those authorities with an up-to-date ‘adopted’ plan is far less than the 82% quoted by ministers.

The Government also intends to produce league tables showing progress towards adoption. To help Councils meet the 2017 deadline the Planning Inspectorate has been asked to review its procedures and provide advice on soundness earlier in the examination process. This is likely to be welcomed by all parties and could limit the number of costly examinations being suspended.

 

Along with the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, this proposed extension of power continues to raise the role of regional/strategic area planning once again, with the potential for top-down intervention. Given that membership to a Combined Authority is voluntary, requires local authority consent and regional models are different to that in London, it would be surprising if a Combined Authority were to actually exercise this ‘call-in’ power over one of its member authorities to deliver a Local Plan.  In London, however, the situation is somewhat different as London boroughs automatically fall under the strategic direction of the Mayor and Greater London Authority (GLA).

The London Mayor currently has to be creative in the way that he seeks to maximise the delivery of housing across the capital. These additional Local Plan powers may add to this string of pro-development sub-programmes and allow him to force those local boroughs that are behind with an up-to-date development plan. It may also enable the Mayor to tackle the debate on housing numbers and associated planning issues in the more difficult fringe areas across London, to ensure that all boroughs are maximising their contribution to the delivery of housing.

Will this deliver more homes? Not quickly, but it would allow the Mayor of London and Combined Authorities to tackle those areas that are considered to be underperforming and ensure that there is a plan for long-term housing delivery.

In terms of resources, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has a fully functional Planning Department that has the skills to utilise such a power. Whether or not the GLA has the resources available to undertake Local Plan work alongside the likely increase in case work on referred applications, will be a question for those at City Hall. Currently the GLA handles its workload efficiently, but it would need to demonstrate that calling-in a Local Plan would result in the adoption of a better development plan document more quickly, than if it had been left with the local authority.

As drafted, the new wording to be added to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 gives the Mayor and Combined Authorities a wide ranging stick to wave at local authorities. While Brandon Lewis has indicated a deadline of early 2017, it is not the same as actually setting a cut-off date.

Those boroughs that are being proactive in relation to their development plan have little to fear in relation to these new proposed powers of strategic intervention in development plan documents.  However, specific dates and explicit guidance from ministers about the consequences for missing the deadline would help local authorities who have not been as proactive to date..

Overall, it appears, the Government continues to offer the keys to the sweet shop via its localism and neighbourhood planning agenda, but  is looking to strengthen its own powers to intervene if the children are not playing fairly.

Parts of this blog feature in Planning Magazine’s article: Why combined authority and mayoral intervention powers may prove a damp squib

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London, Mayor of London, Local Plans, Housing and Planning Bill