Do you cooperate or do you not cooperate?

Since the 2011 Localism Act, the duty on local authorities to cooperate with one another on delivering housing has been enshrined in law. With this in mind, the expectation was that local authorities are engagers and know how to consult, know how to work collaboratively together. This may have happened in parts of the country, but in other parts, it has highlighted the deep divide between authorities, both politically and how they operate. The result in many cases is delay and an ever stalling planning system.

How do you fix the problem? – The solution proposed by the recent Government’s Planning White Paper is to remove the Duty to Cooperate.

Simple, but is this music to the ears of Council members and local politicians? In the medium to long term, you would hope that this would make the Local Plan process more straightforward and streamlined. In the short term, however, this is a great opportunity for local authorities to delay progressing their Local Plans and to await the outcome of the White Paper consultation. This could be months, even a year away, and what will lay in wait for Local Plan preparation and what will replace the Duty to Cooperate.

St Albans Council have recently voted to withdraw its draft local plan from examination after inspectors found that it had failed the Duty to Cooperate. This was second time that the Local Plan had failed the Duty to Cooperate. The first time the Local Plan was withdrawn was as a result of the authority creating its own isolated housing market area around St Albans. The second, very recent episode came about through the authority promoting a Garden Community on a proposed nationally important strategic rail freight site. In this instance, the council failed to adequately engage with neighbouring councils before allocating the rail freight site for housing. The inability to demonstrate cooperation and to put forward a robust development strategy has been found wanting at St Albans, and means the local authority will need to start the Local Plan review again. Is this what the local politicians always wanted anyway, seeking further delay and preventing land coming forward for development?

Although the White Paper is considering an alternative approach, the Duty to Cooperate has highlighted that many Local Authorities are not good at cooperating with one another, and they have competing interests. On the plus side, whilst delay is not good for business, from the perspective of landowners, promoters and developers, the Duty to Cooperate has given them the opportunity to question and challenge development strategies proposed by local authorities. It would one step forward, two steps back, if there is not a opportunity to challenge local authorities plans for development in the future.

How the Government deal with the Duty to Cooperate over the next year will be eagerly awaited in planning and development community.