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Secretary of State threatens to put ten LPAs into special measures

This morning (May 12th) DLUHC published letters from the Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, to ten separate local planning authorities threatening to place them in special measures if they did not rapidly improve their speed of decision making. 

The affected councils are:

  • Calderdale Council
  • Cotswold District Council
  • Epsom & Ewell Borough Council
  • Guildford Borough Council
  • Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council
  • The Peak District National Park Authority
  • Pendle Borough Council
  • Portsmouth City Council
  • The Vale of White Horse District Council; and
  • Waverley Borough Council 

The letters, which are dated 12 April 2023, warn the respective councils that the speed of decision making in their respective areas, between October 2020 and September 2022 was below the expected threshold and that the Secretary of State is minded to place them in special measures as a result. 

The councils have all been given until June 2023 to demonstrate significant improvements in their performance. If they do not manage to meet the required thresholds during this period, the Secretary of State "will not hesitate" to designate them later this year. 

If the Secretary of State follows through on this threat, this will be the largest number of councils in special measures that I can remember. To date, only Uttlesford has had its planning powers removed in this way. 

Whilst on the one hand, it is encouraging that DLUHC does seem to be taking the question of the performance of local planning authorities seriously, it is debateable whether, given the current climate, this is the best way to secure improvements.

As I mentioned in our firm's response to the NPPF consultation in March, local planning authority resourcing is currently under intense pressure. DLUHC has published eight major planning policy consultations in just the last six months, and local government resourcing has not increased dramatically for a number of years.

This combined with the sheer number of additional considerations that are being layered into the planning system - such as a BNG, water and nutrient neutrality, and the government's current obsession with 'beautiful' developments, is making it more time-consuming and complex to navigate. This impacts on councils just as much as the private sector, albeit that LPAs are much less likely to be able to adapt rapidly to the changes. 

Sam Stafford's 50 Shades of Planning "Life on the Front Line" Posts have been tracking morale in local planning authorities over the last two years; and they make for pretty grim reading. A designation for poor performance is unlikely to help a council improve morale or indeed attract new staff members to deal with an increasingly complex workload.

Perhaps, the focus should be on ensuring that local planning authorities have the tools and resources that they need in order to be able to cope with the demands that DLUHC is placing on them - as opposed to simply expecting them to cope and then punishing them when they fall short. 

The Secretary of State is minded to designate each local planning authority, but recognises that recent data has shown improvement.

Before formal designation, the local planning authority will be given the opportunity to demonstrate improved performance by June 2023.

If during this period, performance falls below the required threshold, the Secretary of State will use his powers to designate the local planning authority later this year.”