The secretary of state Michael Gove chose not to make his speech on 19 December about planning reform before the House of Commons, where he could have come under parliamentary scrutiny, but at the Royal Institute of British Architects.
For those of us who were interested it was a matter of picking up the speech via Twitter (or X, if you must). I was alerted by my MP’s staff that he was attacking my council by name and indeed issuing a ‘direction’. He claimed that St Albans Council (with others) had ‘failed not just to adopt a plan but even to submit one to examination since 2004.’ The direction to St Albans was to provide a plan timetable within 12 weeks of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): hardly onerous given that progress on the plan was in the public domain.
It might be petty to point out that St Albans last submitted a plan for examination in 2019, although the inspectors threw it out.
The main point, however, is the suggestion is that somehow, we are coasting. We are acutely aware that relying on a plan last revised in 1994 is far from ideal and makes the council vulnerable to attacks on its green belt from developers in unsuitable places.
We sought help from the Local Government Association after the 2019 submission failed: they looked at the plan-making system that we had inherited from the previous administration. They were not flattering. In particular, they made it clear that micro-managing by councillors, especially those who considered themselves planning experts, had to stop. The monthly agendas running into hundreds of pages, which meant a great deal of debate on the weeds rather than the overall picture, also had to go. Officers had to be given space to get on with their work. And the process needed to be led by the leader and chief executive.
All of these changes were made with enthusiasm and officers went back to the drawing board to prepare a brand-new plan.
But resources have been a key problem. Until the recently announced changes to planning fees, the council was losing £3 million a year subsidising applicants. This meant that across the entire council services, including plan making, operate on a shoestring. This was drawn to the attention of the secretary of state by local MP Daisy Cooper who wrote and asked for additional resources to ensure that a new plan could be drafted within the timescales demanded by Government.
This request was turned down.
Which makes the suggestion by the secretary of state that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had only just discovered that St Albans had an old plan – or maybe knew this but had failed to get the council to take it seriously – even more puzzling.
The fact is, of course, that this council talks regularly to civil servants to assure them that things are on track. In fact, on the day before the Gove announcement, planning officials had been spending time talking to the Planning Inspectorate for England and Wales (PINS) about progress. No alarm bells were raised then.
The secretary of state has anyway not made it easy for councils to discern government policy. Semi-official statements in 2022 suggested that the housing targets were now advisory and indeed that the green belt could only be used in exceptional circumstances. Parliamentary probing indicated, however, that the existing NPPF remained in place until it had been formally revised. And in a ferocious attack on a Times article only days before the Gove announcement on 19 December, DLUHC said: ‘claims we have dropped [housing] targets are completely false. Our goal of delivering 300,000 homes a year remains, and local authorities will continue to have to calculate and justify their local housing need, informed by the standard method.’
Many councils sincerely believed that the targets had gone. In St Albans we didn't but those objecting to the local plan – from residents’ groups to opposition parties – said that we should delay work on the plan because the targets would change. But we knew what the Government expected of us. Or thought we did.
And even with the new NPPF it is far from clear how the green belt versus housing need conundrum can be squared.
Chris White is leader of St Albans Council and a former audit commissioner