Duty to Cooperate – a pitfall for spatial planning

The Duty to Cooperate (DtC) has brought several Local Plans crashing down at Examination. The latest victim being the Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan. The Inspectors’ initial findings have indicated a strong likelihood that the Council will need to withdraw the Plan1.

The DtC may not be a duty to agree, but it has become a serious trip hazard that has left local planning authorities (LPAs) vulnerable to challenge and to speculative development. What is becoming apparent is that a Local Plan will not pass muster, where constructive, active, and regular engagement on strategic matters with neighbours cannot be evidenced.

Strategic growth is not politically popular; volunteering to accept additional new housing at a local level, beyond a LPAs own housing need is not (often) the done thing. Many LPAs are unable to meet their housing needs due to tightly drawn administrative boundaries. Invisible boundary lines are becoming a real barrier to growth. The DtC is failing to bridge the gap between planning at local and national levels.

An attempt to consider sub-regional growth has neglected to run in parallel with the Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan process. The ‘WAGS’ – no not a re-run of Footballers’ Wives – but the jointly commissioned Wider Area Growth Study by Chiltern and South Bucks Councils, Slough Borough Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, leaves Slough’s unmet housing needs to a future Plan. The DtC lacks any clear joined up approach between spatial planning and localism.

Awaiting the Examination stage of a Local Plan is far too late in the process for these realities to emerge. LPAs should be required to address strategic matters at the earliest stage in Plan making and be focused on outcomes. The DtC as currently crafted is failing to deliver effective spatial planning outcomes.

Co-ordinated strategic development is not just about contributing to local housing needs (although that is a really important element). It is about delivering at a scale which will support sustainable and social infrastructure that shapes a development into a resilient, liveable, and vibrant community. This is not always possible within the confines of a single administrative area. This requires us to think bigger than local.

Continuing headaches over the DtC are inevitable, until there is an appropriate strategic planning framework in place. The DtC is resulting in a huge waste of resources, frustrations, and delay, leading to planning by appeal. Why does MHCLG not intervene in the plan-making process earlier, when they can surely see accidents waiting to happen?

1 https://www.southbucks.gov.uk/examination