Housing secretary defends proposals for new suite of national planning policies to trump local plans

Michael Gove has said proposals in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to make national planning policies override local plans are a “necessary safeguard” to ensure important national policies are reflected fully in planning decisions.

The housing secretary made the comments in a letter to the chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, Clive Betts, responding to his request to address concerns the government’s proposal “radically centralises” the operation of the planning system.

Gove select committee right to buy

Gove appearing before MPs earlier this year

Clauses in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) make provision for the government to set out a new suite of national development management policies, which the government says are designed to replace those parts of local plans which are largely replicated across the country, enabling plans to be shorter in future.

Clause 83 of the Bill make clear that in the event of a conflict between a local plan policy and the new national development management policies “national development management policy has primacy”.

A number of planning groups and lawyers have raised concerns over this move, which appears to mark a significant shift from the current role of the local plan in decision-making.

A legal opinion, commissioned by pressure group Rights: Community: Action, referred to by Clive Betts, states that the Bill “undermines an important planning principle, the primacy of the development plan”, and “radically centralises planning decision-making and substantially erodes public participation in the planning system”.

However, Gove, in his letter to Betts, said the Bill strengthened the role of the local plan, with improved democratic engagement and a new clause making clear that any departures from it will need “strong reasons”.

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Gove said the proposal was that National Development Management Policies, by enabling shorter, more digestible and quicker-to-produce local plans, will actually enable a stronger role for local plans.

However, he admitted: “The Bill does say that National Development Management Policies would have precedence in the event of conflict with plans”. But he said this was “a necessary safeguard in situations where plans have become very out of date, and important national policies on the environment and other matters need to be reflected fully in decisions.

“I would, though, expect such conflicts to be limited in future; both because we are making it easier to produce plans and keep them up to date, and because of the clear distinction which the Bill provides for in the role of locally-produced policies vis-à-vis those of national importance.”

He also addressed concerns that the suite national development management policies will not be fully consulted upon, stating that “The Bill would place an obligation on me, or my successors, to undertake such consultation as is considered appropriate when producing or changing National Development Management Policies.”

He added the department will carry out full public consultation before the policies are introduced, and that, ahead of that, it will “shortly” publish a prospectus setting out “my initial thinking […] on the scope of National Development Management Policies and how they would relate to the rest of the National Planning Policy Framework.”

Royal Town Planning Institute chief executive Victoria Hills

Royal Town Planning Institute chief executive Victoria Hills

Currently, while local authorities are expected to draw up local plans in line with national planning policies contained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), local plans – when up to date – are the top tier document when making individual planning decisions.

The government has so far given little detail of what to expect from the new suite of national development management policies, which it announced with the publication of the LURB in May. A policy paper published alongside the Bill said the policies will be “derived from the policies set out currently in the National Planning Policy Framework”, as well as looking to address “any gaps in the issues which are covered”.

Last month Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said the government hadn’t provided enough details over its proposals for national development management policies to know whether the system could work. She told the select committee: “We do not have the level of detail and, as I mentioned, any sense of proportion as to what proportion of local plans are going to be effectively nationalised there is a big question mark there.”