A Practical Guide to Development Plans

This article covers the basics of Development Plans in the English planning system, including the process of consultation and application. 

What are Development Plans? Think about where you live and where everything is located. Try to think about what you might change about where you live given the choice. Maybe there should be more shops, housing or better infrastructure? Local development could impact a community for generations. And as much as people are passionate about the places they live, planning is seen as somewhat of a mystery or a barrier. 

So, what is town planning, and what does the development process involve? 

Town planning provides a framework for development which is not about control, but is a way to anticipate needs. If there were no guidelines on where or what to build, places would be isolated, non-inclusive and not able to support its residents with appropriate places to live, work and relax. Planning identifies pressing issues and available resources and makes sure that these are responded to. Whether that be through building more sustainable homes, identifying and delivering economic opportunities, or protecting heritage assets, Town Planning must balance it all.

What are Development Plans?

A development plan includes local and neighbourhood plans and any spatial development strategies produced by the local authority. This article will focus specifically on local plans. 

Local plans are the heart of the planning system and their goal is to set out a vision and framework for the development of an area. These plans are used as the basis for determining all planning applications. So if you’re planning a development, check the adopted local plan to determine what planning policies are in place for the area and the type of development you are proposing. 

A local plan should detail everything planned for the area that will be carried out within the plan’s time period, which is a minimum of 15 years. This can involve designating land and objectively assessing where to locate different types of development. The plan provides guidance on where and what should be developed within different areas. 

A local plan should also ensure policies are flexible enough to adapt to a changing environment and also provide a framework for any development not anticipated in the time period allocated.

What different types of town plans are there?

There are a couple of different types of planning that you need to be aware of. The National Planning Policy Framework NPPF (2019) identifies that Development Plans must include strategic policies to address each local planning authority’s priorities for the development and use of land in its area. They can be contained in an individual local plan or joint plan where authorities work together; or can be in a spatial development strategy produced by an elected Mayor or combined authority. 

Local Plans

Local plans are formulated by a local planning authority in consultation with the public. These plans set out the vision for future developments in their local areas as well as answering the determined needs of these areas. A local plan can consist of either strategic or non-strategic policies, or a combination of the two and include a policy proposal map. 

This is the type of plan that this article is focusing on. 

Neighbourhood Plans

Neighbourhood plans are more localised than local plans, these are community led by a parish council or neighbourhood forum for a designated neighbourhood area. They must meet certain ‘basic conditions’ and other requirements and be independently examined before they go through a referendum process in advance of being adopted.

What are the different stages of the local plan process?

There are a number of different stages to the local plan process. The stages are as follows:

  1. Evidence gathering
  2. Consultation and identification of key issues
  3. Publication and submission
  4. Examination of plan
  5. Adoption

More about what each individual step includes is as follows:

1. Evidence gathering

  • Formulate initial aims and objectives;
  • Commence evidence gathering process;
  • Identify environmental, economic and social objections to inform the Sustainability Appraisal (SA).

2. Consultation and identification of key issues

  • Engage with the local community, business and other interested parties, including statutory consultees on the scope of key issues; 
  • Take into account any representations received;
  • Ensure compliance with Statement of Community Involvement (SCI);
  • Continue gathering evidence.
  • Test emerging options through a SA.

3. Publication and submission

  • Publish the draft plan for a minimum of 6 weeks inviting further representation; 
  • Submit plan for examination, along with SA, evidence base and statement of representations received.

4. Examination of plan

  • Independent Inspector assesses plan to determine it has been prepared in accordance with legal and procedural requirements and whether the plan is sound.
  • Local planning authorities can request that the Inspector recommends main modifications to make the plan sound or comply with other requirements;
  • Inspector will issue a report at the end of the examination, exceptionally the Inspector could recommend a plan is withdrawn if it is likely to be found unsound. Consultation on modification takes place.

5. Adoption

  • Draft plan formally adopted by the local planning authority, if main modification are proposed by the Inspector these must also be adopted.
  • Monitoring the implementation of the plan is required in the form of an Authorities Monitoring Report;
  • Review local plan at least every 5 years. 

This article will cover each of these stages in more detail.

What evidence is needed for a local plan?

A local plan requires that you submit up to date evidence which supports the policies and guidance proposed in the plan. Therefore appropriate and proportionate evidence is required to show that the needs are real. Plans significantly affect how an area can develop, any proposed allocation or policy to shape an area should be based on objectively assessed needs.

A local plan will be examined by an independent Planning Inspector acting on behalf of the Secretary of State. The local plan will be critically analysed, it will be checked for any holes in terms of its soundness for instance a lack of evidence to support a proposal. A local planning authority will therefore need to ensure there is up to date and robust evidence to prove the points the plan makes. Local Plans must be reviewed at least every 5 years from the date of adoption to ensure they take into account changes in circumstances.

Some of the common documents that you can use as evidence include:

  • Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), identifies the housing need for the area over the plan period;
  • Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA), establishes the land available to meet the identified housing need;
  • Employment Land Review (ELR), usually carried out at the same time as the SHLAA or combined with it. This assessment considers the existing and future supply of employment land; 
  • Sustainability Appraisal, is an integral part of preparation and considers all likely significant environmental, economic and social factors to inform the development of the plan; 
  • Statement of Common Ground; 
  • Habitat Regulation Assessment;
  • Strategic Flood Risk Assessment; 
  • Landscape Character Appraisal; 
  • Infrastructure Plan, setting out essential infrastructure needed to deliver the plan;
  • Heritage Assessment; 
  • Green Belt Review (where necessary); 
  • Minerals and Waste Plan; ETC

What part does consultation play in town planning?

A local plan affects people’s lives in different ways, it is essential that meaningful community engagement is carried out to help shape the future of an area.  The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) outlines that planning system should be genuinely plan-led. The plans should support a positive vision for the future of the area. So consultation with the local community is an important part of the process. 

A local planning authority will gather evidence to determine the future needs of the local area as well as consulting communities, businesses and other parties who may be affected by the plan. Submitting a representation in relation to an emerging plan is a way to voice opinions and ideas to support, object and / or improve the local plan. 

How can you get involved in a local plan consultation?

Contact your local planning authority and request to be added to their consultation list, also check their website for consultations regularly. 

Your local planning authority’s website will give information on when consultations will be carried out and how to submit representations. Local planning authorities must produce a Statement of Community Involvement (SCI), which should explain how they will engage local communities and other interested parties in producing their Local Plan and determining planning applications. The Statement of Community Involvement will be published on the local planning authority’s website. If in doubt contact your local planning policy team and ask what stage a plan is at and ask to be added to their mailing list for any future consultations.

When making comments, it is important to make them easy to understand and as specific as possible. This is to ensure the local authority understands the points you are making and how to resolve any issues you may have. Local planning authorities must publicise and keep up-to-date their timetable for producing their local plan. This information is contained within a Local Development Scheme, which local planning authorities should publish on their website and must keep up-to-date.

If you believe the evidence base has errors you should ensure you communicate these to the local authority during the consultation process with your evidence of why you believe this. Request to be part of the examination in public and during the hearing sessions highlight your concerns to the Planning Inspector.

How are local plans assessed for soundness?

A local plan will be examined by an independent Planning Inspector acting on behalf of the Secretary of State. They will be critically analysed to assess whether they have been prepared in line with the duty to cooperate and checked for any holes in terms of soundness. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) identifies that plans are found sound if they are: 

  • Positively prepared: providing a strategy which, as a minimum, seeks to meet the area’s objectively assessed needs; and is informed by agreements with other authorities, so that unmet need from neighbouring areas is accommodated where it is practical to do so and is consistent with achieving sustainable development; 
  • Justified: an appropriate strategy, taking into account the reasonable alternatives, and based on proportionate evidence; 
  • Effective: deliverable over the plan period, and based on effective joint working on crossboundary strategic matters that have been dealt with rather than deferred, as evidenced by the statement of common ground;
  • Consistent with national policy: enabling the delivery of sustainable development in accordance with the policies in the Framework.

What is an examination in public (EIP)

Once the Local Planning Authority (LPA) has finished preparing and consulting on a local plan they will submit its published local plan and all supporting documents to the Planning Inspectorate for examination on behalf of the Secretary of State. The EIP will assess whether the plan that has been prepared and submitted is in accordance with the legal requirements as set out by The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). A suitably qualified Planning Inspector is appointed to examine the plan. 

An EIP is an open and transparent process, held in public, anyone can attend to watch the proceedings, however if you intend to participate you must have been involved in the local plan consultation process and invited by the Planning Inspector to make representation in person.

The local planning authority should already have an independent Programme Officer in place. They will have the responsibility of managing the examination of a local plan in accordance with legislation and code of practice on inquiries. The Programme Officer will coordinate the overall programme of the examination including event and document management. They will also provide a level of administrative support to the Inspector without compromising the independence of said Inspector.

What is the process of the Examination In Public (EIP)?

If you are attending the Examination in Public (EIP) what can you expect? The process will look a little something like this:

Step 1:

The Inspector will give consideration to the matters and issues for examination, the structure of hearings, allocate participants to hearing sessions and decide whether additional material is needed from participants. 

Step 2:

The local planning authority (and representors) may be asked to provide papers or responses on specific issues. These topic papers will form part of the evidence base. 

Step 3:

The Inspector will confirm the hearing start date. Notification sent to participants of the examination. There maybe multiple hearing days, however participants only need to attend on the relevant day or session. The Inspector will lead the discussion and invite representations as appropriate. 

Step 4:

The majority of plans are subject to a request from the local planning authority that main modifications are recommended by the Inspector where it’s necessary to make the plan sound. 

Step 5:

Post-hearing the local authority will work with the Inspector on drafting the proposed main modifications and will then be required to undertake sustainability appraisal (SA)(as necessary) and public consultation (minimum 6 weeks) on these proposed main modifications. 

Step 6:

During this time the Inspector will progress work on the report but finalisation of the draft report will not be possible until the responses and SA are available on the main modifications. At this point the Inspector will issue the report.

If the plan is found sound (sometimes subject to modifications) the Council have the choice to accept the modifications and adopt the plan or go back to the drawing board and start the process again.  Once a plan is adopted it should be regularly reviewed as the needs of people change.

In conclusion 

People are passionate about the places they live, and local development could impact a community for generations. But town planning can be a bit of a mystery and somewhat confusing. Hopefully this article has helped demystify development plans for town planning. 

For more information on town planning visit here: Town planning: The basics.

We have much more information for you in our series of ebooks which cover everything from the very basics of town planning to application processes and what self builders need to consider. Download the ebook which best suits your needs right here.

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