The duty to cooperate has been one of the most failed planning reforms in recent memory; a legacy to be proud of Eric. We were so close to good examples of compliance with the duty to cooperate in the South East of England (yes, that one; that has been a legal requirement since 2011). Alas, it wasn’t to be. Perhaps.
Firstly, Oxfordshire. The Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC), Councillor John Cotton, unceremoniously vetoed the outcome of nearly two years (originally intended to be limited to around one) of joint working undertaken by the five Oxfordshire local planning authorities and Oxfordshire County Council (OCC). So plan preparation across the HMA is set back… yet again. The Oxfordshire Growth Board have recently released a report and held a meeting, identifying how to tackle Oxford’s housing crisis. Unfortunately, both have proven to be ambiguous and you can read my colleague Tom Rice’s thoughts on the report and the event.
Secondly, we turn to Buckinghamshire. Similarly, the local authorities made a good start. A jointly commissioned SHMA (once South Bucks District Council (SBDC) remembered it was part of Buckinghamshire) was produced; hurrah! A joint Green Belt review also… good…. good…and best of all, Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) published a ‘preferred options’ draft Local Plan (the ‘VALP’). This would not only meet the full objectively assessed need for the district as considered by the SHMA (21,000 dwellings) but the unmet housing needs as identified by the southern Buckinghamshire Districts: Wycombe, South Bucks and Chiltern, amounting to an additional 12,000 homes (a total of 33,000 homes). Wow; preliminary hearing avoided and everyone moving forward with an agreed apportionment.
Yes, there were still many questions asked about the VALP and the evidence base. Plain sailing it was not. That was, however, before local politics caught up and stamped its mark in Buckinghamshire.
In response to Wycombe District Council’s (WDC’s) Local Plan consultation which closed in August 2016, AVDC submitted representations raising concerns about the amount of unmet housing need WDC sought to push northwards, questioning whether WDC has done enough to identify sites (very reminiscent of experience in Oxfordshire). We must presume that the same will be submitted to South Bucks and Chiltern District Councils when consultation on their joint proposed submission Local Plan commences next month. Or is WDC being singled out?
Unless rapid progress can be made by the Buckinghamshire authorities, the fundamental issue of housing provision remains unresolved. As such, it would be a foolhardy LPA that presses on regardless, accepting “it isn’t a duty to agree” (if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that…).
Thirdly, in Berkshire, the process is at an earlier stage. There are the positive markers of a jointly commissioned SHMA and references to cross-boundary working in consultation documents. The fruits of those labours have yet to be revealed and for good reason, based upon the experiences summarised above.
There are two principal urban areas within Berkshire: Reading, in the west, and Slough in the east. Both are constrained by administrative boundaries and both will not be able to identify sufficient land for housing to meet the OAN. All well and good, but a robust SHLAA, capable of withstanding close scrutiny from the surrounding hinterland authorities is urgently required.
Reading Borough Council (RBC) has yet to complete this work but the results are eagerly awaited. More interestingly, Slough Borough Council (SBC) has reported recently that it intends to consult on an issues and options draft towards the end of 2016, concluding that the full OAN cannot be met within its administrative options (with a shortfall of approximately 130 dpa). The same reporting comments on potential cross-boundary development options, to the north (within South Bucks) and to the west (within RBWM), advises that SBC recognises that it will have to work with its neighbours if such Green Belt options are to be developed.
All the while, RBWM has stepped back from the precipice of a doomed Proposed Submission Local Plan following legal advice identifying, amongst other issues, a lack of evidence to demonstrate the duty to cooperate has been complied with. We shouldn’t have to wait long to learn if RBWM is only going to ‘jump in’ regardless.
Whilst Berkshire is (generally) at an earlier stage of the process, the apparent lack of any formal structure for engagement or memorandum which commits to the process of engagement makes the alarm bells ring.
Many authorities within the above areas are under significant pressure of planning applications and appeals in the face of confirmed five-year housing land supply shortfalls. Many have committed to rapidly bringing forward up-to-date Local Plans, as protection against such unwelcome appeals and to avoid the risk of intervention of the Secretary of State in Local Plan preparation. The difficulties in cross-boundary cooperation discussed above however, can only serve to hinder such efforts, in terms of delay or adding significant risks to the prospects of plans passing examination.
Barton Willmore are monitoring the above closely and will be keeping clients abreast of developments as they arise. Please contact me or another member of the team on 0118 943 0000 if you wish to discuss any of the above in more detail.
 Obtained through a formal request made under the Freedom of Information Act. Please get in contact if you wish to receive an electronic copy of these representations.
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Oxfordshire, Planning, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Thames Valley, Duty to Cooperate