What’s the Plan? An analysis of local plan coverage across England

Planning under fire with only one in three councils having an up-to-date local plan, according to new research by CPRE

Fewer than one third of local planning authorities are operating under an up-to-date plan for the purposes of deciding applications for new housing development, according to new research by CPRE, the countryside charity.

The charity’s ‘What’s the plan?’ research report, which is the most recent complete assessment of local plan coverage across England, challenges the government’s claim that the planning system is genuinely plan-led and raises questions regarding Ministers’ target for all councils to be operating under an up-to-date plan by the end of 2023.

The research found that not all of England is covered by local plans and that a significant proportion would not pass the tests required to be seen as up-to-date. Key findings from the report include:

  • The majority (90%) of local planning authorities have an adopted local plan. 10% of LPAs do not have an up to date local plan, and most of them, except one development corporation, use older ‘saved policies’ from previous plans developed before 2004;
  • Only 40% of local plans are less than five years old or have been updated or reviewed in the past five years;
  • Only 30% of local planning authorities can be considered up-to-date if using the definition that the council must be able to demonstrate that it has sufficient land identified in the plan for five years of housing development; and
  • Over 80% of local planning authorities will need to review an existing plan, or adopt a new plan, in order to meet the government’s proposed 2023 deadline.

Matt Thomson, head of land use and planning at CPRE, the countryside charity, said:

“Our research clearly disputes any claims by Ministers that the planning system in this country is plan-led. This is concerning as local plans are essential to delivering high-quality and genuinely-livable areas.  Done well, local plans provide a vison for residents and investors alike. They also protect and enhance areas of countryside that are critical for our health and wellbeing, provide a haven for nature and are an asset in tackling the climate emergency.”

“The report found that national planning policies and the government’s tests for local plans make it difficult for councils to adopt plans, and even harder for plans to be defined as ‘up-to-date’. Having an out-of-date plan risks losing local discretion over development proposals, so there’s already a massive pressure on councils.  To turn this around, the government needs to give councils more support and consider how to redefine the test for plans being ‘up-to-date’ in order to reinvigorate democratically accountable, locally-led planning.”

Many local planning authorities have found getting adopted plans in place challenging and what is more, keeping those plans up-to-date has proven even more problematic. The report includes key recommendations to support local authorities and the government to move to a genuinely plan-led system by the end of 2023, including:

  • Monitor local plan coverage– the government should monitor and publish a summary of local plan coverage across England at least annually.
  • Monitor and strengthen housing land supply positions– the government should monitor LPAs’ housing land supply positions and consider improving the policy’s practicability
  • Produce guidance for LPAs on updating local plans– the government should produce clear guidance and for LPAs on how to review and subsequently update a local plan, which is essential to enable local authorities to maintain up-to-date plans.
  • Learn lessons– the government should work more closely with the relevant LPAs to try to learn from these lessons and provide the necessary support to address the barriers these LPAs face in plan preparation and adoption.
  • Simplify statutory plan documents– the government should help simplify the landscape by providing a clear structure of statutory plan documents across England, which would improve usability and make it easier to monitor and maintain up-to-date plans.