Sam Hollingworth, associate director with the Planning team at Savills in Chelmsford, discusses the planning issues facing new administrations in the East of England following the recent local elections.
The dust is now starting to settle following the recent local elections – with around a dozen authorities in the East of England changing political leadership.
Several councils will now be led by different parties, while others will be run by minority or joint administrations.
It will be interesting to see the approach taken by new councils, what priorities some of these coalitions arrive at and whether minority administrations are able to progress much-needed plans.
Many are still at the formative stages, with concerns about wider changes to the planning system being quoted as reasons for delays. However, potentially difficult decisions about planning for the future still need to be made.
Whatever their political persuasion, there are a number of key issues to be addressed.
Several of the region’s Development Plans are patently out of date in terms of being able to address current needs and respond to climate change.
In Essex, the average Local Plan is over eight years old, while two authorities – Basildon and Castle Point – have failed to adopt a new Local Plan this century.
Only one authority, Brentwood, has a Local Plan prepared in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework 2018 or later – reflecting the Government’s current approach to issues such as determining local housing need.
The issue is by no means limited to Essex. St Albans’ Local Plan will turn 30 years old next year and 12 other areas in the East of England are still using strategic policies adopted more than 10 years ago.
The region is well positioned for future growth – particularly with Cambridge and the opportunities presented by the Oxford Cambridge Arc at its heart. However, if this potential is to be met – and in the interests of ensuring plan-led development – it is imperative that local authorities ensure their Local Plans are up to date.
In the meantime, it may be that more departures from Development Plans are required to meet current needs.
Housing needs and affordability
Housing need and affordability remain perhaps the greatest challenges facing our region – as it does in other parts of the UK.
High demand and a shortage of supply have seen house prices increase dramatically in recent years.
Nowhere is the problem perhaps more apparent than the city of Cambridge.
Research carried out last year by Savills identified that house prices in the city have risen 241% since 2001 – a virtually identical increase to that experienced by London, with average prices over 12 times the average local earnings. At the same time, the private rental market is one of the most expensive in the country.
The ongoing success of the region relies on its ability to attract and retain young people to live and work here.
Policymakers, local authorities and developers must work together to establish an innovative and fresh approach to deliver a variety of new housing products and tenures that better suit the needs of the younger population.
Protection of the Green Belt vs sustainable development
Many of the areas where housing delivery has been poorest relative to need – and where affordability has worsened to the greatest degree – are also those that are subject to significant planning policy constraints.
Essex provides a potentially telling example. The south of the county is largely constrained by Green Belt and its authorities have some of the worst housing delivery records in the country.
Conversely, mid and north Essex (which contains much countryside but no Green Belt) has seen a significantly greater proportion of its housing requirements met in recent years.
Failure to deliver sufficient housing will have significant negative social and economic impacts.
In addition, is it really viable to direct the majority of development away from certain areas of the region simply because they contain Green Belt, requiring other areas to accommodate these needs instead, simply because they are not subject to this particular constraint?
Ensuring sustainable development while meeting housing needs and responding to the Government’s encouragement to protect Green Belt is one of the key challenges facing the region’s local authorities.
Effective joint working
Planning issues do not follow administrative boundaries and the region’s planning challenges require a coordinated approach.
With a large number of local authorities across a broad geographic area there is arguably no area in the UK in which the need for effective joint working between local authorities is more important than in the East.
There are already examples of effective collaboration. Cambridge City Council is working together with South Cambridgeshire District Council to prepare a new Local Plan for Greater Cambridgeshire, while South Essex has seen the formation of the Association of South Essex Local Authorities, with its aims including to help deliver infrastructure and housing and to make the sub-region carbon zero by 2040.
In Suffolk, there is a long-established record of joint working of the authorities surrounding Ipswich to help manage growth beyond its tightly drawn administrative boundaries.
In Norfolk, the Greater Norwich Local Plan represents a joint approach to seeking to address development needs by Broadland District Council, Norwich City Council and South Norfolk Council working with Norfolk County Council.
This need for collaboration – regardless of which political group is in control of an individual council – will only become more important.
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