Back to articles • Back to home page

 
A Battle on the Boundaries
Housebuilder – February 2014

The abolition of the regional strategies saw the loss of the mechanism that enabled neighbouring councils to work together to provide for local housing need. To tackle this, the government brought in a new duty to co-operate - but is it working? Mark Smulian investigates

A timebomb was left in the planning system when England's local government boundaries were drawn 40 years ago.

By and large these lines are still used with some urban areas squeezed into tightly-drawn borders while their rural hinterland falls under the control of a neighbouring authority. In planning terms, this can be a recipe for trouble.

A problem can arise if an urban area cannot meet housing needs within its boundary and needs the neighbour to take the strain - but the neighbouring council can face voter resentment if it allocates sites for development to meet a demand generated elsewhere.

Under the old regional strategies there was a mechanism to resolve this, but with regional strategies gone, ministers have now included a "duty to cooperate" in the new system, ensuring that councils assess housing need alongside their neighbours.

A core strategy cannot be deemed sound by a planning inspector unless they are satisfied that the duty to co-operate has been followed, and if there is no core strategy there can be little certainty about an area's planning policy.

In some places the duty has worked well, but where it does not, core strategies could face long delays. Planning litigation expert Richard Harwood QC, of the 39 Essex Street chambers, says: "The problem is interpretation. The legislation simply says that a local planning authority, when drawing up a plan, has to liaise with neighbours.

Interpretation

"It is not a 'duty to agree', but planning inspectors are interpreting it as though it were. They are rejecting plans where local authorities have sought to cooperate but found their neighbours had nothing to say to them. Planning inspectors need to be realistic."

One of the most notorious examples occurred at Stevenage, a tightly-packed urban borough with limited opportunities for building, where a large slice of developable land lay in neighbouring North Hertfordshire.

Stevenage's core strategy was rejected as unsound by an inspector in 2011, who noted: "The balance of evidence persuades me that there is considerable uncertainty as to when, if at all, North Hertfordshire will resume joint working with Stevenage.

"I cannot but conclude that the necessary commitment on the part of North Hertfordshire to assist Stevenage to implement its core strategy is simply not there at the time of writing my report. Furthermore, it is not clear if such a commitment will ever be made."

Stevenage had proposed 20,800 new homes for the 2001-26 period, of which 12,500 would have been in North Hertfordshire.

As Harwood puts it: "Stevenage had a plan that depended on North Hertfordshire doing something it had no intention of doing." Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon had applied to build 5,000 homes in an area dubbed West Stevenage but largely within North Hertfordshire. The builders threw in the towel last summer after years of disputes.

Ill feeling lingers. Tom Brindley, cabinet member for planning at North Hertfordshire, says: "The homes at West Stevenage were in the old regional spatial strategy but were not needed. The duty to co-operate is not a duty to agree and people must recognise that."

His opposite number at Stevenage John Gardner says: "Stevenage is a very tightly drawn urban area and in sustainability terms it does not matter whether people live in new homes in Stevenage or North Hertfordshire since the distance they travel into town is similar.

"We do want some new homes in the town centre, but we cannot meet housing need within Stevenage."

The two councils are now working on an "A1 Corridor" housing needs study with Central Bedfordshire council too.

It is not only towns with rural surroundings that can fall foul of the duty to co-operate.

Coventry saw its core strategy for 33,500 new homes declared sound in 2010, but following a change of control from Tory to Labour, it was withdrawn and a new plan proposed for only 11,373 new homes.

Neighbouring councils objected that this large reduction in Coventry could see increased demand for building in their areas.

Planning inspector Robert Yuille noted that Birmingham had objected to Coventry's plan and that half a dozen other nearby councils had used different methodologies to assess their housing needs.

Yuille wrote: "This is significant because the lack of broad consistency in the way housing need is being calculated between the various local planning authorities in the Coventry housing market area calls into question the statement that they are all capable of meeting their housing requirements within their borders and that consequently there is no requirement for any local authority to meet any part of its housing requirements in another area."

A December 2013 report by consultant GL Hearn found that 3,800 new homes a year were needed between 2011-31 and suggested how these could be divided among the councils concerned, which are yet to respond.

Recriminations also continue at Huddersfield-based Kirklees council.

Objection

The HBF objected in late 2012 to Kirklees' core strategy arguing: "The council has not had sufficient regard to development beyond its borders in preparing its plan."

It said Kirklees' statement on the duty to co-operate explained only administrative mechanisms and "does not show how any cross boundary impacts that have been identified will be addressed materially".

Planning inspector Roland Punshon felt the same. He said other nearby councils were bringing forward proposals broadly in line with the old regional strategy, but Kirklees "appears to be abandoning the foundation of co-ordination which could be provided by the regional strategy".

Punshon said Kirklees had planned only for "those who could afford to buy together with the number of affordable homes which could be reasonably provided alongside the market houses. I can see no endorsement of the council's approach in national guidance."

Peter McBride, Kirklees' cabinet member for place, says: "The duty to co-operate is being interpreted as if it were a duty to agree.

"We argued for a figure based on demand and historical factors and that came to 20% below the old regional strategy figure. The planning inspector effectively said we had not consulted enough even though no other authority objected.

"The problem is that the government hasn't got a policy on this, just rhetoric from Eric Pickles."

A happier example comes from the booming city of Cambridge, another constrained urban area but one with a long history of amicable working with South Cambridgeshire, which encircles it.

Cambridge's head of planning Patsy Dell says: "We have a memorandum of co-operation, but there is a history of co-operation going back through several structure plans."

A joint committee of councillors oversees this, though each council takes its own planning decisions. Planning consultant Peter Studdert, who formerly ran the Cambridgeshire Horizons regeneration body, says: "South Cambridgeshire is a curious district in that it donuts the city and has 101 villages but no market towns, so it very much looks to Cambridge psychologically for shopping, work and amenities and that may be why the co-operation works."

The two councils are consulting on a joint strategy for 2011-31 that would see 33,806 homes built, though only 6,504 of them in the urban area of Cambridge with the rest on the city boundary or new settlements in South Cambridgeshire, plus a few in villages.

Cambridge is an example of how the government wanted localism and the duty to co-operate to work, but it is a comparative rarity.

John Acres, residential business development director at planning consultancy Turley Associates, says: "I've not found anyone who thinks the duty to co-operate is a sensible way of working. It is planning by sticking plaster.

"Local authorities did not realise how rigorous inspectors were going to be about this and the duty to co-operate isn't something you can go back and fix, it has to have been there from the start."

Acres thinks inspectors are right to interpret the duty rigorously but that it lacks any imperative to make it work.

He says: "The trouble is that the mechanism needed to make a system like this work was the regional spatial strategy. The government painted it as an ogre when it abolished it, but it wasn't, it was just a rather time consuming way of reaching a decision.

"Now if a council cannot meet its housing need and needs help from a neighbour there is nothing there to make sure the neighbour helps."

Getting rid of the regional strategies was a cornerstone of localism. If the duty to co-operate does not work will the strategies make a return, but with a new name?

Right to Grow

Shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn has recognised the problem with the duty to co-operate and told the Labour party conference last September: "There are areas in the country where councils and communities see the need for more homes but there just isn't the land to build them on.

"So the next Labour government will give those communities a new 'right to grow', allowing them - if they want - to expand and ensuring that neighbouring areas work with them to do so." However he is yet to flesh out the idea.

Richard Blyth, head of policy, practice and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says: "I welcome Labour's attention to the problems of cross-border planning. I am concerned that a right to grow over your borders might ride roughshod over local democracy. What we need are much greater incentives for councils in a housing market area to work together to produce joint plans which all subscribe to.