Report calls for a new planning model, as two thirds of councils say the pressure on their infrastructure is ‘excessive’ due to housing

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2021 | 08 December 2021

The government should rapidly implement a new strategic planning model as part of forthcoming reforms to the system to closer align housebuilding and infrastructure in county areas, a new report suggests.

The study from the County Councils Network (CCN) and Catriona Riddell Associates puts forward new arrangements to help ensure that local infrastructure is not overburdened by new housing development and could assist with the government’s levelling up agenda.

These ‘accountable strategic planning bodies’  – made up of senior councillors in a county area – can effectively plan for housing and jobs and ensure that infrastructure is properly planned for and financed to cope with these new developments, whilst taking climate and health considerations into account.

Download the new report here.

A new survey of county authorities, released in the report, reveals that two-thirds of those councils say the pressure on their local infrastructure – roads, health centres, schools, public services – is ‘excessive’ because of new housing development.

The report has been covered by The Telegraph, which you can read here.

Strategic planning is commonly viewed as a more collaborative mechanism to encourage local authorities to work together particularly in county areas, where a county council is responsible for infrastructure across the whole county and several district councils are responsible for housing in their area. However, strategic planning has not been a formal part of the planning system since the late 2010s, and currently the only informal tool to encourage those councils to work together is the ‘Duty to Co-operate’ – which the government is looking to scrap in its planning reform agenda.

With the new Levelling-Up Secretary set to revise the government’s planning reforms in a new Planning Bill next year, county leaders have said there has ‘never been better time’ to re-introduce strategic planning back into the system, and that these arrangements recommended in today’s report should feature in the final reforms package.

In the short-term, this new model could be piloted through forthcoming county devolution deals, with the government currently negotiating with a cohort of areas across the country.

These strategic planning arrangements could work as follows:

  • An ‘accountable strategic planning body’ should be set up across each county area. This body would be made up of senior councillors from all councils in the area, working on a majority voting system, and the chair is recommended to either be a councillor from a county authority – like Growth Boards – or a directly elected leader, if such arrangements are made in specific devolution deals.
  • This body would set out a vision for their area, including testing locations for housing, economic growth, or larger regeneration, and then matching these with the right infrastructure. This ‘Strategic Growth Plan’ would provide a framework but not supersede individual councils’ Local Plans.
  • Their proposals would be scrutinised by a ‘strategic planning advisory body’ made up of local councillors and business, health, climate, and civic leaders. They would test and advise the ‘accountable strategic planning body’ on whether the shared vision in the ‘Strategic Growth Plan’ is being delivered. This body would work very similarly to the London Assembly, which scrutinises the London Mayor’s London Plan.

The CCN is warning that the government’s planning reforms could increase these infrastructure pressures in county areas if they do not include this new model for strategic planning.

Every respondent to the CCN survey said they faced pressure on their local infrastructure because of new development – and 58% described this as ‘excessive’. Just over half – 1 million (51%) – of the 2 million new homes delivered in England since 2010 have been built in county and rural areas, CCN analysis shows.

It also reveals that as well as pressure on local infrastructure, councils in county and rural areas are concerned over the amount of funding they receive to finance infrastructure upgrades alongside new developments. Three quarters of those surveyed said their local infrastructure funding gap was ‘severe’.

With no replacement for the Duty to Co-operate mechanism proposed by the government, all bar one council in the survey said that they were concerned that strategic planning was not part of the initial proposals, and the CCN is urging the government to include this in the revised planning reforms.

Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:

“The present fragmented system not only makes more difficult to build the right homes in the right places, but it does not allow us to properly plan for and finance infrastructure. As a result, many of us are facing severe pressure on our roads, health services, and schools because of development.

“With the government reconsidering its planning reforms, and ministers looking to agree several county devolutions deals across the country, there has never been a better time to implement strategic planning arrangements. Failure to do so could only intensify the pressures on infrastructure that we are all experiencing in our areas.

“Strategic planning provides the impetus to bring all councils and local leaders together to set out ambitious and deliverable visions for their areas, scoping out the right places for housing and ensuring that infrastructure is financed. Local planning operates best when everyone is working together, and strategic planning is the way to bring all of the pieces of the jigsaw together.”