Skip to content

Local Plans – what they are and how they affect planning decisions

What is a Local Plan?

Local Plans are about land use – establishing how land is designated, which areas are to be built upon, and which areas are to be protected. They are about ‘spatial planning’ and, as such, they provide the framework for and underpin ‘development planning'”.

Every local planning authority must by law produce a development plan. Development plans can be in the form of individual or joint Local Plans (produced by authorities working together), spatial development strategies/frameworks produced by Combined Authorities, or both.

Development plans may also include Neighbourhood Plans. These are voluntary and are prepared by local communities, normally led by town or parish councils. Where there is no town or parish council, Neighbourhood Plans can be prepared by a specially constituted community planning body.

These documents together set out policies and priorities for the development and use of land in the particular area, balancing economic, social and environmental needs. Strategic elements should cover a minimum 15 year period from the date of adoption.

Local Plan and spatial development framework consultations are therefore a key focus for us and for all CPRE local groups.

Why Local Plans are so important

Once a Plan or spatial framework is adopted, the planning authority’s planning decisions must by law follow it unless there are very good reasons (‘material considerations’) not to. This means that if a planning application aligns with the Local Plan, it can be difficult if not impossible to challenge.

Where land has been allocated for housing, for example, a planning authority must normally allow housing developments on the site. If the authority turns down an application that aligns with the local plan, they risk the developer lodging an appeal – which can lead to an expensive legal fight.

Similarly, where land has not been allocated for a particular use type, an application for that use type is unlikely to succeed.

Note though that Permitted Development rights introduced by central government mean certain types of development can go ahead without a planning application, and can potentially override Local Plan policies. One example is the conversion of offices and shops to housing.

Where there is no up-to-date local plan

Without an up-to-date local plan, planning authorities do not have a solid framework against which to assess applications. This can make it hard for them to refuse planning applications, even if they do not think the development is appropriate.

For this reason, it is often better to adopt a less-than-perfect plan than to prolong debate and leave the countryside and green spaces vulnerable to unsuitable developments.

Local Plan Development

Planning authorities must follow strict procedures and consult with the public and statutory consultees at the various stages. To be sure that the outcome reflects what local communities want, need and value, it’s vital that people get involved in Plan development before decisions are made.

Local CPRE groups are very much involved in these consultations, making submissions and  speaking at examination hearings (if invited to to so by the Inspector) In our approach to planning, our key aim is to influence policy making towards genuinely sustainable outcomes that work for the local community.

Following the 2023 Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, the way in which Local Plans are developed is likely to change. The Act set the scene for speeding up the process, but details have not yet been finalised.

Currently (June 2024), the preparation of a Local Plan or spatial development strategy usually involves the following stages:

Evidence gathering and early stage consultation (Regulation 18)

  • Collection of data and the production of reports on issues including housing, employment, retail, environment, and landscape
  • Consultation on initial issues and options that will define the draft plan

Pre-submission publication stage (Regulation 19)

  • Publication of a planning document taking into account earlier responses and findings
  • Statutory (minimum) six week consultation period
  • Changes made based on consultation responses
  • Further consultation if any changes are significant

Document submission for independent examination (Regulation 22)

  • Submission of final draft documents to government
  • Independent Inspector’s examination into soundness of Plan – is it ‘positively prepared, justified, effective, and consistent with national policy’?
  • Evidence taken from anyone who wishes to make a submission on issues highlighted by the Inspector
  • Public hearings

During the examination period, the planning authority can ask the Inspector for recommendations for modifications to make the document suitable for adoption where it might otherwise not be found sound. The Inspector can only recommend modifications if the planning authority asks them to.

Inspector’s report and adoption (Regulation 24)

If the inspector finds the Plan to be sound, they will recommend adoption. If the Inspector doesn’t recommend adoption, the planning authority can adopt the Plan in line with any ‘main’ modifications’ suggested. The authority can also make non-material changes (‘additional modifications’) at any time before adoption. Authorities can withdraw a development plan document at any stage before it is adopted.

Though the Secretary of State has powers to intervene, these powers are rarely used.

The planning authority will then formally adopt the Plan at a full Council meeting. This is the end of the process, unless there is a legal challenge against the decision.

Local Plan reviews

Policies in Local Plans and spatial development strategies should be reviewed at least once every five years and updated if necessary.

More information

Our approach to planning

Local Plans and spatial development frameworks in the Cheshire group area

National Planning Policy Framework