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  • Writer's pictureJames Palmer

Local Plan Sham

By James Palmer

When I was first elected as a District Councillor back in 2007, I was told that I had joined at an exciting time because the council were about to begin their new Local Development Framework Document.  This was a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to decide how and where the district would grow. Except it wasn’t.  Fast forward 5 years and my frustration with what became the Local Plan led me as leader to deliberately allow the plan – which restricted rather than encouraged growth - to remain unadopted, This allowed the planning committee to accept proposals based on their own merits.

Over the past 50 years the Local Plan system (or derivations of it) has failed to deliver the number of homes needed in England, yet we steadfastly refuse to change the way we plan for growth. Local Plans can create the illusion of promoting growth while simultaneously restricting housing development. A carefully drawn line in a town hall can turn landowners into lottery winners. Where developers don’t bring forward housing, landbanks arise. When landowners decide not to sell, new lines need to be drawn. What’s more, local authorities need only throw a cursory glance at what their neighbours are doing, which leads to disjointed and incoherent planning across wider geographies.

My experience as a local government leader and as an elected mayor has convinced me that a spatial strategy that considers growth across a wider region would be a far better and more positive way to deal with the growth problem. District and small city councils simply do not cover functional economic areas and can neither plan or deliver beyond their boundaries. It is the job of government to deliver regional and national growth. And this requires a credible planning system.

Of course, the turnover in housing Ministers – 16 in the past 14 years - has not helped. Beyond this government, we have had much of the same housing policies for the past 40 years. Meanwhile, house prices continue to climb, young people can’t get on the housing ladder, local plans fail us all and there is no strategic plan for businesses to work to. So, we all muddle along accepting the status quo because that’s how it is.

It really shouldn’t be like this and it is time to look at the current system and make a change. To an extent, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove has already admitted the Local Plan strategy has failed in the east by creating a Development Corporation for Cambridge which he hopes will realise his plan to build 250 000 new homes. However, a far simpler and more inclusive way to deliver homes at that scale would be to plan regionally and develop public transport links between Cambridge and the rest of the region.

By delivering a spatial strategy the East of England could be transformed by polycentric growth. A more convincing and achievable approach that uses Cambridge as a catalyst to further develop the whole region. 


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