An Essex council threatened with intervention by central government for taking too long to prepare its local plan is unlikely to face Whitehall action, say observers, despite little apparent progress in the preparation of its development blueprint in the past six months.
In March 2018, Javid wrote to three councils, including Castle Point, saying they would face Whitehall scrutiny and possible intervention in their plan-making for failing to reach key “milestones” in their local plan timetables. With intervention in two of those – Wirral and Thanet – effectively ruled out in February, mystery has surrounded the status of the remaining plan being prepared by Castle Point Borough Council.
In November last year, councillors at Castle Point seemed to have brought the prospect of government intervention nearer when they rejected the latest version of their draft plan by the slimmest of majorities. The decision meant the council missed a deadline agreed with government to hold a public consultation on the plan. After the decision, commentators said ministers would feel under pressure to follow through on their threat to take over production of the plan.
However, eight months later, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has yet to announce any further action. When contacted by Planning, the MHCLG said it was sticking by the same line that it proffered in November last year that “an announcement will be made in due course”.
“The risks of any real intervention in local plans therefore seem very low” – “it will likely to take place in behind-the-scenes meetings with officials, rather than being played out in the public domain.”
It has also been quiet from the council on the plan-making front. The authority’s web page on the local plan has no update since last November’s meeting. It says that following the decision not to proceed with the plan, the council is “in discussions” with the MHCLG “in regards to the next steps”. A spokeswoman told Planning: “We are liaising with the department and continuing to develop a pre-submission plan. We are trying to get ourselves in shape to move forward.” Planning understands that Castle Point has agreed a revised timetable with government and will proceed with a slightly revised version of its draft plan, but the council was unable to confirm this or provide more details.
Unlike some other authorities, the May local elections has not threatened the plan’s progress. The council remains led by the Conservatives despite losing a couple of seats to independent candidates. David Scane, associate partner at Newgate Communications said the political make-up of the council could be a factor preventing intervention by the government. He said: “Politically, there will be very little appetite for a Conservative government to intervene in a Conservative-led authority in order to impose unpopular higher housing numbers as this would be an absolute gift to the opposition.”
Some sources suggest that Brexit has held up central government progress, with the eyes of the civil service focused on bigger issues. David Bainbridge, planning partner at property consultancy Bidwells, said a lack of capacity in the MHCLG could be playing its part. He said: “There should be plenty of appetite for this, but MHCLG hasn’t got the resources to parachute in a team to prepare a local plan. It needs an organisation to do this.”
He suggests that the only likely candidate to fulfil this role would be Essex County Council, with which former communities secretary Sajid Javid said in his 2018 letter that he had discussed such a course of action. However, rather than formal intervention by Essex, Scane said a less confrontational solution may be found. “My suspicion is that the issue will be slightly fudged and incorporated into the South Essex joint spatial plan process, the next stage of which is due for review at the start of 2020.”
Consultant Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist for the Planning Officers’ Society and an advisor to Castle Point and other south Essex authorities on their emerging joint strategic plan, said the threat of intervention seems to have evaporated. She said: “There does not appear to be any genuine attempt by the secretary of state to intervene over any local plans and we are nearly two years and three secretary of states on from the initial letter announcing the naughty list and intentions to exercise powers of intervention. The risks of any real intervention in local plans therefore seem very low.”
Scane agreed, saying he does not believe that there was ever very much appetite for intervention in any of the identified local authorities, with the initial letters “serving as a warning rather than a statement of intent”. He added: “If MHCLG does intend to continue with the local plan intervention programme, it will likely to take place in behind-the-scenes meetings with officials, rather than being played out in the public domain.”
Content: Planning Resource
With thanks to: Basildon Residents Against Inappropriate Development