Skip to main content

The Local Plan – A campaign pledge for all seasons

By David Scane
27 April 2023
Planning Communications and Consultation
local elections
politics and planning

Here’s the scenario; you’re a local political party in need of pledges for the upcoming local elections. So far, you’ve ticked off all the hits: “run the council efficiently”; “revitalise the high street”; “improve local buses”; “champion/scrap cycle lanes”. These are all local manifesto gold, but any campaign worth its salt needs at least five pledges. Then you remember that nice Mr Gove said something about changing the planning system to lower the number of houses that a local authority has to deliver in its local plan, and just like that, you have your final pledge. 
The great thing about using the local plan as a campaigning tool is that it works in so many different scenarios. Here are just some of the variations being used by parties around the country to win votes on 4 May: 
Wealden District Council - Conservative council with no local plan in place
The local plan saga in Wealden, East Sussex, has been rumbling on for several years. Back in February 2020, the Conservative controlled council withdrew the emerging local plan a year after submitting the draft to the Inspector. Since then, consultation on the new local plan has once again been paused due to “too much uncertainty” around national planning policy. The Conservative group has “hugely welcomed”  Gove’s announcements of reduced housing targets and is taking credit for having lobbied central government for the changes. Opposition parties are putting the “Tories failed local plan” at the centre of their campaigns, arguing that it has resulted in ‘the wrong houses in the wrong places’. Opposition to development means control of the once solid Conservative-run Council hangs in the balance and could possibly see the party lose control.  
Hinkley & Bosworth - Lib Dem council with no local plan in place
In Lib Dem controlled Hinckley & Bosworth, the roles are reversed. Here, the Conservative opposition is using the lack of an adopted local plan as a campaigning tool against ‘speculative development’. Michael Gove himself has appeared in a campaign video arguing that only the changes being proposed by a Conservative Government can deliver the houses that ‘people need in the places they want’. The Lib Dem group has in turn cited ‘national planning uncertainty’ in its decision to pause the local plan process and will no doubt welcome Mr Gove’s intervention to remind people of his role in that supposed uncertainty. The Conservative group will be hopeful of picking up enough wards to take back the council from the Lib Dems after losing control in 2019. However, we feel the timing of the election within the cycle (Tories in mid-term polling difficulty) makes that unlikely.
Guildford – Lib Dem/Residents Association with an adopted local plan
Back in 2019, the then Conservative administration in Guildford was punished at the ballot box for adopting an unpopular local plan. A coalition of Lib Dems and Resident Group councillors have subsequently run the council for the past four years, sharing the leadership between them (as in neighbouring Waverley Borough). Guildford provides an interesting twist on the local plan campaigning dynamic. The ruling party is pledging to review the adopted local plan, while the opposition, which is still seen as being responsible for the local plan, is de facto defending its previous work, claiming the council isn’t implementing the policies in the correct way. Surrey is increasingly a hostile environment for the Conservative Party, with the opposition forming ‘progressive alliances’ in authorities across the county. We expect Guildford to remain in the hands of the ‘progressive alliance’ after the election.
Windsor & Maidenhead - Conservative council with adopted local plan
Perhaps the most interesting twist on the ‘local plan as a campaign’ angle is in Windsor & Maidenhead, where the Conservative leader has called on the government to review the adopted plan. Back in March, the Conservative leader of the council wrote to Michael Gove to ask that the numbers in his authority’s local plan be reviewed in light of recent government announcements. In response, the opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of ‘disgraceful electioneering’  (surely not!) saying that the leadership knew for years that the housing figure should be lowered and has only changed its mind after having ‘ knocked on a few doors for the election and has realised the residents think it’s a stupid idea and now he’s trying to save his skin’. We’ll only have to wait another week to see whether this move will prove ‘disgraceful’ or ‘very effective’ electioneering on the part of the Conservative group, but with the council composition on a knife edge, don’t rule out this once True Blue authority being controlled by another party after 4 May.