Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

3  Implications of the abolition of regional spatial strategies

Revocation of RSSs

14. On 27 May 2010, just over two weeks after the Government assumed office, the Secretary of State outlined the Government's intention to abolish RSSs in a letter to local planning authorities:

I am writing to you today to highlight our commitment in the coalition agreements where we very clearly set out our intention to rapidly abolish Regional Strategies and return decision making powers on housing and planning to local councils. Consequently, decisions on housing supply (including the provision of Travellers' sites) will rest with Local Planning Authorities without the framework of regional numbers and plans [...] I expect Local Planning Authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to have regard to this letter as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking.[21]

Subsequently, on 6 July 2010, the Secretary of State announced the revocation of Regional Strategies with immediate effect in a written Ministerial statement to the House, explaining the mechanism by which this would be achieved:

The abolition of Regional Strategies will require legislation in the Localism Bill which we are introducing this session. However, given the clear coalition commitment, it is important to avoid a period of uncertainty over planning policy, until the legislation is enacted. So I am revoking Regional Strategies today in order to give clarity to builders, developers and planners.

Regional Strategies are being revoked under s79(6) of the Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and will thus no longer form part of the development plan for the purposes of s38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.[22]

The Chief Planner at DCLG, Steve Quartermain, issued guidance on the issues arising from the announcement, covering the period between revocation and abolition.[23]

15. However, on 10 November 2010, the High Court reinstated all RSSs in a judgement arising from a challenge to a planning appeal decision brought by Cala Homes. The court found that the powers under which the Secretary of State had purported to revoke all RSSs were in fact insufficient to achieve that aim. The Court also found that the revocation of an RSS was unlawful without an environmental assessment under Regulation 9 of the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004. The Secretary of State decided not to appeal to the Court of Appeal, but instead reiterated his earlier guidance that planning authorities should take the proposed abolition of RSSs into account as a material consideration when reaching planning decisions, and should consider what weight to afford to an RSS in that context.

16. The Secretary of State, giving evidence to us following the ruling, said of the High Court decision:

A sensible, prudent authority will take into consideration the fact that in a matter of days a Bill will be produced—we have produced the draft clauses of that Bill—and in a matter of time these spatial strategies will be removed. Therefore, while it [the continued existence of RSSs] is a factor it is not necessarily a decisive one.[24]

17. The Secretary of State's restated guidance prompted Cala Homes to issue a second claim, seeking a declaration from the Court that the Government's stated intention to abolish RSSs is not a material consideration when reaching planning decisions. On 29 November 2010 the Court placed a temporary block on the Government's claim that its plans to abolish RSSs should be regarded as a material consideration in planning decisions, but this was lifted on 7 February 2011, and, as it stands, planners can take into account the Government's intention to abolish RSSs.

18. The Localism Bill was published on 21 December 2010. Clause 89 states:

(1)  The following provisions are repealed—

(a)  Sections 82(1) and 83 of the Local Democracy, Economic, Development and Construction Act 2009 (effect of regional strategies), and

(b)   the remaining provisions of Part 5 of that Act (regional strategy)


(3)  The regional strategies under Part 5 of that Act are revoked.

Subsection 1 of clause 89 would have the effect of putting into statute the abolition of RSSs and subsection 3 effects the revocation of current RSSs, which puts into statute what the Secretary of State attempted to do in his letter of 29 July 2010.

19. The High Court ruling against the attempted revocation of regional spatial strategies means that there is time to think through appropriate transitional arrangements before RSSs are abolished. We recommend that the Government adopt a more evidence-based and consultative approach to policy making in the future, especially in an area such as planning, where pragmatism and consensus are valuable assets in securing active rather than reluctant consent to new approaches to local involvement in decisions affecting people's everyday lives.

A planning vacuum

20. The Secretary of State had wanted "to avoid a period of uncertainty over planning policy" by revoking RSSs with immediate effect. However, the botched revocation has resulted in that very thing, a period of uncertainty, leaving a large gap in many areas of planning policy. Whatever the views of the merits of RSSs, those giving evidence to us overwhelmingly stressed the importance of the Government putting in place interim measures to ensure that alternative planning arrangements are discussed and developed. Boyer Planning, an environmental planning and development consultancy, for example, wrote that "uncertainty is now endemic in the system", which is "serving to undermine the rational framework to spatial planning that exists at the heart of the town and country system".[25] West Coast Energy, echoing the concerns of many in the private sector, noted the uncertainty caused by the vacuum and argued that "it is of the utmost importance that delays are minimised and crucially intermediate plans or guidance relating to specific issues such as renewable energy proposals are formulated and are given full government backing".[26]

21. The Town and Country Planning Association's evidence explains that, under the 2004 Planning Act, RSSs and local development frameworks (LDFs) complemented each other, but the removal of RSSs has meant the removal of the strategic context of planning, and removed the mechanism that produced detailed research and data collection on such issues as housing and energy, which underpinned LDFs. Without such strategic context and detailed research, adopted LDFs "are now subject to potential challenge and those in preparation will require urgent review […] It is unsurprising, therefore, that both legally and pragmatically the letter of 27 May 2010 created uncertainty for those preparing and implementing LDFs".[27]

22. Roy Donson, from Barratt Development, reiterated these consequences of removing RSSs—the top tier of planning arrangement—without securing any transitional arrangements:

Every time the system has been changed in the past there has been a fairly smooth flow in the planning process from the old to the new system. If we go back to the 2004 Act, we had saved policies that were the transitional arrangements, if you like. The difference now is that we have taken away the top tier—whether that is right or wrong, that has happened—and the transitional arrangements are not sufficiently clear and are not sufficient of themselves. All the other pieces of this particular jigsaw are not there yet, but we know they are coming, so we end up with a period of uncertainty.[28]

23. One particular example of the missing jigsaw pieces is the means by which the planning of water and drainage networks is carried out. Thames Water warns of the consequences of this gap in the planning policy between national and local levels that has been created by the abolition of RSSs, which will not be filled in the short to medium term. It makes the crucial point that such a gap is exacerbated because some local authorities do not even have reference to water and drainage infrastructure in their Local Development Frameworks because they were already covered in the RSS. It notes that "the need for strategic investment in water resources is no longer recognised at either regional or local level".[29]

24. Despite DCLG's current guidance that states that local authorities should continue work on their LDFs, in practice some local authorities are slowing down or stopping work on them altogether. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation writes that this lack of work on LDFs is probably inevitable "with no transitional arrangements and uncertainty about how incentives will work" and recommends that "[DCLG] must seek to ensure a more orderly transition—the guidance so far is insufficient". [30] The RTPI lists examples of where local authorities have slowed down planning activity, including those in South and West Oxfordshire, Surrey Heath, Vale of Whitehorse, Bristol, Castlepoint, Bury St. Edmunds, South Wiltshire, Forest Heath, Cotswold and South Northants.[31] John Acres, from Catesby Property Group, told us of a feeling of inertia among the public and private planning sectors and complained that "the past three months have been almost a question of treading water to see what happens next".[32]

25. The revocation of RSSs left gaps in other planning policy areas. We received evidence commenting on, among other issues, Gypsy and Traveller site provision, heritage and culture, and energy infrastructure. Brenda Pollack told us about the strategic environmental assessment in RSSs, and that now,

[...] at local level, you don't get that strategic overview of how things are panning out in impacts on water and waste [...] authorities are required to do some environmental assessments, but not at that strategic level.[33]

26. When questioned about what happens between now and the coming into effect of the Localism Bill, the Secretary of State did not accept that there was uncertainty, citing the New Homes Bonus:

We are moving from one system to another; we are moving from the Regional Spatial Strategies with housing numbers to one in which local authorities are encouraged to move towards building houses on the basis of incentives. Our principal concern as we move to the new system, which is now beginning to be well developed in the sense that local authorities are responding in granting planning permissions, is that under the new system local authorities have the prime responsibility for ensuring a decent supply of housing.[34]

In his answer, the Secretary of State highlights the Government's view of RSSs: that they were the imposition of top-down targets with those targets primarily focussed on housing. He made no reference to other issues that currently are not being addressed by either the Government or by local planning authorities. As Dr Alister Scott, Reader in Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University, suggests, "the proverbial planning baby has been thrown out with [the] regional bathwater."[35]

27. Regional spatial strategies are still a material consideration and remain in law as part of each local authority's development plan. The legislation to abolish them will take time, and then further time will be needed until there are effective plans and policies in place. As it stands, there is uncertainty among decision makers—developers, landowners, house builders, non-government organisations, local authorities, and everyone interested in land use issues—all of whom are waiting to see what happens. The risk is that there will be a hiatus in development activity until the dust settles and investors have a clearer idea of schemes that are likely to gain approval. Our evidence supports the general view that there is already delay in bringing forward development proposals and delay in the preparation of local authorities' plans. This uncertainty must not continue. The peremptory abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies has created a hiatus in the planning framework, which risks producing a damaging inertia. We recommend that the Government issue guidance, as soon as possible, compliant with the existing law, to assist local authorities and others on how to address the important strategic planning issues covered by RSSs and how to continue work on Local Development Frameworks. When the law changes, there will be a need for formal transitional arrangements, and the Localism Bill should clarify those arrangements to explain how the current planning system will be enabled to continue to guide development after the Localism Bill becomes law until the new arrangements are up and running.

21   http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/1768631.pdf Back

22   HC Deb, 6 July, cols 4-5WS. Back

23   Ibid. Back

24   Q 260 Back

25   ARSS 74, Boyer Planning Ltd, summary Back

26   ARSS 121, West Coast Energy, para 5.7 Back

27   Ev 91 Back

28   Q 198 Back

29   ARSS 143, Thames Water, para 8 Back

30   ARSS 32, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, p3 Back

31   Ev 86 Back

32   Q 169 Back

33   Q 165 Back

34   Q 269 Back

35   ARSS 147, Dr Alister James Scott, para 2 Back

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