What are Local Plans?
Local Plans are the bedrock upon which the entire UK planning system is based. Prepared by local planning authorities (councils) they essentially establish how land should be utilised in a given area. Once agreed, they are used to determine planning applications.
The current Local Plan system properly emerged with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This implemented for the first time a ‘plan-led’ system whereby anyone wanting to develop land had to first seek planning permission.
Despite their importance Local Plans are often treated with at best detached apathy and at worst visceral animosity.
One reason for this is their complexity. Local Plans respond to a myriad of needs. How can enough housing be provided? How can the local economy be stimulated? How can the climate crisis be addressed? Responding to these needs means that they often amount to hundreds of pages of convoluted, Kafkaesque policy.
Reading’s Local Plan is 251 pages long1. Northumberland’s is 404 pages2. Southwark’s is 601 pages3. Most people have neither the time nor willpower to wade through such gargantuan documents. In Dorset less than 2% of the population provided feedback during the recent consultation on their Local Plan4. In Portsmouth less than 1% of the population provided feedback5.
A second reason is their association with new housing. Local Plans must identify sites where sufficient homes could be built to meet independently assessed housing needs. Unsurprisingly, people often disagree with the location of these sites. In 2021 more than 8,000 people objected to the housing sites earmarked in Ashfield’s Local Plan6. In 2022 more than 10,000 people objected to the sites earmarked in Hertsmere’s Local Plan7.
‘It begins as a house, an end terrace in this case, but it will not stop there’– Simon Armitage, Zoom!
The coalescing of these two factors, complexity and an association with new housing, means that despite their importance Local Plans are rarely up to date. Recent research by CPRE found that two thirds of Local plans are out of date8.
Why is the lack of up to date Local Plans a problem?
The most obvious impact is upon housing. Local Plans provide a degree of certainty as to where new housing is permitted. If they are not up to date this certainty is limited, meaning that housebuilders may be less willing to submit planning applications. Between October and December 2022 the number of planning applications received fell by 13% to 93,000 versus the same quarter in 20219. This figure is clearly insufficient given the scale of the UK’s housing crisis. A recent Centre for Cities report suggested that compared to other European countries the UK has a deficit of 4.3 million homes10.
However the impact of out of date Local Plans stretches beyond housing. As the National Planning Policy Framework states, Local Plans should not only address housing needs but also ‘other economic, social and environmental priorities’11. This alludes to the progressive potential of Local Plans.
‘The urban landscape, among its many roles, is also something to be seen, to be remembered, and to delight in’– Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City
This progressive potential has existed throughout history. Ebenezer Howard in the nineteenth century introduced the idea of garden cities, marrying the positive elements of both town and country. He argued that ‘human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together’12. Patrick Abercrombie’s 1940s plan for London, based around the idea of neighbourhood units, is unmatched in its extensive scope. He hoped to allow for ‘a greater mingling of the different groups of London’s society’13. Richard Llewelyn-Davies, appointed in the 1960s to plan Milton Keynes, welded the theory of garden cities with the American grid system. The aspiration was to provide freedom with which ‘the people who come after us [can] plan and build a future’14.
If Local Plans are not up to date this progressive potential cannot be realised.
What is to be done?
How could a Labour government tackle the problems caused by a dearth of up to date Local Plans?
There have already been substantial movements in relation to the housing crisis. A plethora of policy interventions from the left have suggested ways to build more homes and counteract the drag caused by out of date Local Plans. These have begun filtering through to Labour’s leadership. Starmer recently announced his intention to back ‘the builders, not the blockers’15. He has detailed plans to restore housing targets, allow more green belt development and empower councils to purchase land without factoring in the ‘hope value’16.
Unfortunately there have not yet been similar movements in relation to the progressive potential of Local Plans.
The housing crisis is not the only crisis afflicting the UK. Inflation sits at 8.7%17. GDP growth this year is forecast to be just 0.4%18. On current trajectories the UK will not meet net zero by 205019. After thirteen years of Conservative rule the public sphere is decimated, with loneliness rising and community engagement falling20.
Labour’s recognition of the housing crisis is positive. But it is not enough.
Howard, Abercrombie and Llewelyn-Davies’ plans were not perfect. Howard’s conception of town size limits, Abercrombie’s rigid zoning system and Llewelyn-Davies’ prioritisation of car transport are all now obsolete.
Nevertheless it is not the plans themselves which are significant but the way in which the plans were conceptualised. All three individuals recognised the progressive potential of plans and in addition to building homes they all strove to tackle other crises. Howard hoped to reconnect people with nature. Abercrombie sought an entire societal transformation post-WW2. Llewelyn-Davies attempted to resolve the perceived failures of earlier new towns, such as Stevenage and Harlow.
This recognition of the progressive potential of Local Plans, and a desire to use them as a way of addressing crises, should be adopted by Labour.
Firstly, Labour should seek to change the narrative surrounding Local Plans. Steps have been taken in this direction. Labour openly discuss planning reform and expound the benefits of house building. They should go further. It is inadmissible that less than 2% of the population engage with Local Plans given their importance to the planning system and their progressive potential.
Secondly, rather than simply encouraging and cajoling councils to build more homes Labour should encourage and demand councils, via their Local Plans, to build a better society. Local Plans shape the physical world in which we live. Consequently there is a huge opportunity for them to corroborate Labour’s policy agenda. This opportunity cannot be missed simply because council’s lack up to date Local Plans.
A Labour government is potentially less than a year away. The UK faces multiple crises. Local Plans are critically important and, as demonstrated throughout history, have a remarkable progressive potential. By embracing this importance and progressive potential Labour could use Local Plans as a crucial component in their attempts at solving crises and moving the UK forward.
Sean Eke works in housing policy and public affairs for The Terrapin Group. He is a Labour member in Tower Hamlets.