What is the future of plan-making for new unitary authority Buckinghamshire Council? Principal Planner in Bidwells’ Milton Keynes office, Robert Love, has all the details.
What is the current status of plan-making?
Each of the former authority areas are at various stages of their Local Plan, details of which can be found in Bidwells’ Local Plan Spring Watch 2020. There has been an indication that work would commence on a new spatial plan for Buckinghamshire Council with a view to having a single strategic plan in place by 2025 although there is no published Local Development Scheme (LDS) at present and any delay may put this aspiration at risk.
What will be the key challenges for a new spatial plan?
A fundamental challenge will be collaboration with other neighbouring authorities to ensure the duty to cooperate is met. The merger of the predominantly non-Green Belt authority of Aylesbury Vale with the heavily restricted Green Belt authorities of Wycombe, Chiltern and South Bucks will help insofar as this reduces the risk of a disagreement between these former authorities for accommodating unmet housing need. However, Buckinghamshire Council shares borders with a number of authorities across Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Berkshire, and co-ordinating co-operation across this area is unlikely to be straight forward.
The pressure of collaboration with Milton Keynes is likely to be high given the relative lack of constraints in the north of the area, the strong connections and the fact that Milton Keynes Council have already published an ambitious Growth Strategy suggesting growth across their boundary, into Buckinghamshire’s Council’s administrative area, as part of a sustainable plan for the metropolitan Milton Keynes. Following on from the Vale of Aylesbury Local Plan (VALP) Inspector’s recommendation that more growth is directed towards Milton Keynes, the pressure for delivering housing in the northern part of the District is likely to continue, a process which will need to be carefully managed.
The pressure to collaborate with adjoining Green Belt authorities in the south is also likely to be significant. The Inspector for the Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan has recently raised concerns regarding the failure to cooperate with neighbour Slough Borough Council who are keen for the town to expand to the north into the former Chiltern and South Bucks administrative area. Buckinghamshire Council have rebutted concerns raised by the Inspector and so we’ll to see how things unfold possibly through a virtual hearing session.
A resultant factor from the heightened pressure to collaborate with adjoining Green Belt authorities could mean that the less constrained northern area of the new Buckinghamshire authority might have to accommodate larger amounts of strategic growth under a new future Local Plan. This highlights the importance of joint working with the likes of Milton Keynes and raises the question as to whether a sub-regional strategic joint plan between Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire Council might be the best solution towards thinking about future plan-making for both authorities.
Where will the opportunities for developers through future plan-making lie?
Once the timescales for future spatial plan is understood, there may be opportunities to promote land through an initial Call for Sites process and/or an initial Issues & Options consultation. It will be important to identify through representations some of the key challenges its predecessors faced including some of the previous and current issues that are being raised by the Inspectors through the examination of the VALP and the Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan, but it is clear that more land, likely at a strategic scale, will need to be identified to meet ongoing needs.
During the course of the VALP examination, the Inspector suggested that further work needed to be undertaken to ensure the vitality of rural communities can be maintained or enhanced. Although Aylesbury Vale District Council successfully rebutted the need to find additional allocations as part of the VALP, this issue is likely to reoccur through a new Local Plan and Buckinghamshire Council will be faced with the challenge of balancing future growth between larger sustainable urban extensions and identifying medium-smaller scale allocations across sustainable towns and villages that could provide more short-term housing delivery. In this respect, there might be the opportunity to explore strategic medium to long-term opportunities for growth at some of the sustainable settlements and villages, and in the interim, there may be opportunities in pro-growth villages through neighbourhood plans.
Taking opportunities to engage with Buckinghamshire Council’s neighbours through representation to their stages of plan-making will also be an important step for developers, seeking to influence their engagement with the authority. As an example, Milton Keynes Council’s LDS anticipates submission of a review of Plan:MK by December 2022 meaning there should be opportunities to make representations to them in relation to cross boundary issues prior to any consultation on a new Local Plan for Buckinghamshire. This will be particularly important given the position already set out in the draft Growth Strategy.
Will there be short-term opportunities through the presumption in favour of sustainable development?
The southern part of Buckinghamshire Council’s area is heavily constrained by the Green Belt, which generally trumps housing land supply unless the development can demonstrate Very Special Circumstances (VSC).
The northern part of Buckinghamshire falls beyond the Green Belt and so there is less of a constraint in that respect. With the VALP heading towards adoption however, it seems likely that development proposals that deviate away from the development strategy in the VALP are less likely to be supported by a decision-maker, be it Buckinghamshire Council through a planning application or the Planning Inspectorate through an appeal.
It is anticipated that Buckinghamshire Council will publish their 2020 Annual Position Statement in due course and so this will give clarity on the Council’s five-year housing land supply position and provide a basis for assessing whether this position could be challenged.
It’s worth noting that the four former local authorities perform well against the 2019 Housing Delivery Test (HDT) measurement, with all delivering over 100%. Buckinghamshire Council would therefore appear to be well protected in terms of meeting their HDT and appear unlikely to fall below the 75% for the foreseeable future, or even 85% which would trigger the need to apply a 20% buffer to its five-year supply requirement. Therefore, there would appear to be limited opportunity for development proposals in triggering the presumption in favour of sustainable development through failure to meet the HDT.