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Counties could have greater involvement and oversight in local plans

County councils could be more involved in local plans under a proposed amendment to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, the housing minister has said.

Appearing before the committee scrutinising the Bill this week, Gavin Barwell said the amendments would enable the communities and local government secretary to invite a county council in a two-tier area to prepare or advise on a local plan where a district council has not done so.

He said these proposals would “see plans made at the lowest level of government, keeping things local where possible”.

Barwell announced other key amendments, which would “place beyond doubt” the requirement for all local authorities to have a plan, but allow them greater flexibility over the details.

However, councils would be required to address strategic priorities such as transport and infrastructure and to review the plans at intervals set by the secretary of state.

Furthermore, new measures in the Bill would encourage local authorities to work together across geographical boundaries, and to improve the accessibility of plans to local communities.

A spokesperson for the County Councils Network (CCN) said: “The County Councils Network welcomes the suggestion set out by the housing minister of making planning and infrastructure provision more strategic.

“Despite the best efforts of local government partners, housing remains the least affordable in counties outside of London and productivity in counties lags behind cities. Coming together to join up planning and infrastructure at the strategic level creates a real opportunity to deliver the housing needed to enable people to live locally, and to work with LEPs and business to support new centres of growth.

“CCN will be working closely with central and district partners to develop an approach which brings the public sector together to deliver timely, appropriate and affordable housing for our residents.”

But Cllr Gillian Brown, Planning and Growth Lead Member for the District Councils’ Network (DCN), said: “The DCN has concerns around New Clause 5 which would give the secretary of state powers to intervene and ask a county council to  prepare or revise existing Local Plans. 

“County councils are not planning authorities and, therefore, do not have the planning expertise required to discharge this proposed function – which could lead to increased delays in the overall Local Plan process, in direct contrast to the government intention.”

She added that the financial costs of preparing Local Plans are significant and the proposal could lead to further additional costs which would adversely impact on the existing planning capacity of district councils.

 “District councils have made significant progress with plan-making, and getting plans in place requires significant time, effort and expenditure,” said Cllr Brown. “The DCN recognises that there are still some districts who are yet to agree a Local Plan and would recommend that peer support from districts that have successfully adopted a Local Plan could be requested by the Secretary of  State, to fulfil the need for adopted plans across the country. 

“The government should also look to implement the recommendations of the Local Plans Expert Group which made a number of suggestions in relation to local plans, which the DCN would support.”

During the committee hearing, Jim McMahon, the new shadow minister for local government and devolution, asked about the cost of the Bill, saying: “This could be a significant new burden for local authorities at a time when they are struggling to keep their heads above water.”

Barwell said that councils would receive financial support because, under the current arrangements, a council receives £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood areas it designates, £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood forums it designates and £20,000 once a referendum date has been set for a plan.

He accepted, however, that local planning departments need more resources, and said the government would look at the issue in more detail and has recently held a consultation on the level of planning fees.

Barwell said that if there was an increase in fees, the government would try to ensure that “every penny” of the money raised went to local planning departments.

A recent government consultation found broad support among local authorities for proposals which would place new requirements on local authorities to accept plans from community groups.

However, a third of respondents opposed the plans because of concerns about the cost and timescale. McMahon also asked whether planning was recruiting enough new talent. Barwell said the skills agenda was “absolutely a cornerstone of the strategy” that was needed on planning.

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