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A single unitary authority for Buckinghamshire - what could it mean for plan-making in the future?

On 1 November 2018, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, announced that proposals for a new unitary authority covering Buckinghamshire were to be given the backing of Government.

The  Local Government Update:Written statement  is available here

The plans will see the county council and the four district councils of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, Wycombe, and South Bucks, replaced with one unitary authority.

It has not, however, received unanimous support from the respective authorities. Indeed, all four district councils firmly believed that, rather than a single unitary approach, a more suitable way forward was the progression of a two unitary authority governance system, based on the two different economic geographies in Buckinghamshire. This would have seen Aylesbury as its own unitary and Chiltern, Wycombe, and South Bucks as another.

Buckinghamshire is almost certain to be the last local government reorganisation imposed under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which allows ministers to “fast track structural and boundary changes with the consent of one local authority” in two-tier areas, until 31 March 2019.

Indeed the Secretary of State has almost vetoed any future fresh bids for reorganisation, noting that:

“From March 2019 the sunset clause means that the consent provisions in the process we are currently using for reorganisations fall away. In future, any proposal considered under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act process will require unanimous consent from all councils…”

The profile of Buckinghamshire is set to change significantly over the next 20 years with the emerging Local Plans across the patch identifying a need for some 50,000 homes by 2033, and forecast economic growth as a result of the area's relationship with HS2 and the Oxford to Cambridge growth corridor. So, what are the implications of the single unitary authority for spatial planning?

Plan-preparation

Future Bucks* have indicated that they anticipate the three emerging local plans for Aylesbury Vale, Wycombe, and the joint Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan, will be newly adopted by the launch of a new single unitary council. As a result they anticipate no change in the short term to plan preparation.

However, they have indicated that once the plans come up for review in 2022/2023 the single unitary authority could choose to develop a distinct local development and infrastructure plan for Buckinghamshire.

Clearly, the introduction of a single plan will need to grapple with the complexities of the area, with a significant quantum of housing proposed across the four authorities. This is currently heavily focused within Aylesbury Vale District and the wider environmental and planning designations such as Green Belt and AONB to the south, as well as significant infrastructure investment in HS2/ Cross Rail and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway in the pipeline.

We may also find that, depending on the delays to the preparation of local plans, especially in relation to the joint Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan which is yet to be submitted for examination, that more and more onus is placed on compatibility with any single plan which may come forward from Planning Inspectors. This will be particularly relevant as all emerging plan periods extend beyond the introduction of the unitary authority.

Decision-taking

Regulatory committees dealing with planning applications are required to apply national and locally adopted policies to their decision-making. In the period prior to the preparation and adoption of a single Bucks Local Plan these local policies will differ across the patch, as such it is clear that the committees will need to align to the former authority areas.

The Future Bucks group has indicated that there will be five planning committees, with the creation of ‘Area Planning Committees’ enabling local councillors to make planning decisions.

It is also proposed that the number of councillors will go down from 236 to 98 overall. Whilst this may represent a cost saving to the authority, it may have wider ramifications in that there will be fewer councillors who understand the respective patch and, arguably, will result in fewer local decisions.

Strategic Infrastructure

Arguably, the pertinent reason for change in the governance structure (aside from cost savings) has been to enable the area to fully contribute to the Government’s ambitious growth and infrastructure plans – both those being implemented now (HS2 / Crossrail) and those being planned for the future (Cambridge to Oxford Corridor and Heathrow expansion).

Whilst there is a clear opportunity to effectively plan around these infrastructure hubs, it is apparent that the strategies for planning infrastructure and economic growth and development are at opposite ends of the spectrum in the north and south of Buckinghamshire. The interplay of these infrastructure improvements with housing and employment land delivery has been entangled in the wider implications of releasing land from the Green Belt and AONB in the south, and thereby much development in the area has been focused at Aylesbury Vale through the provision under the Duty to Cooperate.

Whether the introduction of a single authority will present opportunities for a more considered and strategic approach to plan-making, or whether it maintains the status quo in terms of the current spatial strategy, is yet to be seen.

Summary

The announcement is not anticipated to make any immediate changes to plan-making or decision-taking, with the single unitary authority not anticipated to come to fruition until 1 April 2020. It is however a matter which Turley will be closely monitoring.

It is not yet clear how the Local Plan Inspectors will consider the emerging single authority as part of the local plan examination process, as arguably it is a clear material consideration that will affect plan-making across the area, and certainly during the life of the respective emerging local plans. It is almost inevitable that the plans will require review upon adoption.

5 November 2018

*Future Bucks represent the group responsible for the submission of the bid for a single joint authority, with the backing of Buckinghamshire County Council.