Local plan examinations and the planning issues they deal with can be complex. This is intended as a short guide for those who might be participating in a local plan examination for the first time. It does not aim to be definitive or to delve deeply into the world of planning legislation, policy or practice.
Applies to England
What are local plans and who prepares them?
Local plans are prepared by the Local Planning Authority (LPA) for the area, which will usually be the council or the national park authority.
Local plans are used to decide how much land should be set aside to build new homes, offices, factories, warehouses, shops and other things, usually over the next 10 to 15 years. They also show areas where development should be limited for some reason. The plan includes a map showing these areas and it will include policies that say what types of development are acceptable and what development should be like. The local plan is then used to make decisions on planning applications for individual development proposals.
Are local plans consulted on?
Yes. Each local plan must be subject to public consultation carried out by the LPA.
What is the local plan examination for and who does it?
Before a local plan can be formally adopted and brought into use, it must be subject to an ‘independent examination’ by an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. The LPA sends the plan to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, after consultation has taken place, and when they think it is ready for examination.
The purpose of the examination is to assess whether the plan is ‘sound’. This includes deciding whether it meets the four tests of ‘soundness’ set out in national planning policy. In summary, these are that the plan is positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy. There are also some specific legal requirements which each plan must meet, for example in relation to consultation.
The inspectors who work on local plan examinations are invariably very experienced practitioners in the world of planning, with skills in handling large events and assessing complex and controversial issues. They are based all over the country.
What are the key stages of a local plan examination?
There are usually 6 key stages after the plan has been sent in for examination:
- initial assessment - the inspector will look at the plan, the LPA’s evidence supporting it and the consultation responses to decide what they consider the main issues are
- written statements - the inspector may invite written statements from participants addressing specific questions
- hearings - the main issues will be discussed at public hearings led by the inspector. The inspector will determine the most appropriate format of the hearings which could be in-person/physical (‘real’), ‘virtual’ video or telephone conference, blended events or a ‘blended’ mix of formats for each or different sessions (i.e. a mix of in-person and virtual)
- changes to the plan - the inspector will let the LPA know if any changes need to be made to the plan (known as ‘main modifications’) and these are then consulted on by the LPA
- final report - the inspector then considers everything before them (including comments on proposed changes) and writes a final report which is sent to the LPA and published on their website. That marks the end of the examination
- adoption - the LPA then has to decide if it wants to formally adopt the plan as its local planning policy. If they do, they can only adopt the plan with the changes recommended by the inspector
However, sometimes things can be a bit more complicated. For example, if the inspector identifies problems with the plan early in the examination, they may ask the LPA to do some additional work (for example to help justify what is in the plan). This might lead to the LPA suggesting changes to the plan which then need to be put out for public consultation before the hearings begin.
Which version of the plan will the inspector examine?
The inspector will examine the version of the plan which the LPA has sent in for examination. In doing so they will only consider the representations made on that version of the plan. This version of the plan is sometimes referred to as the ‘Regulation 19 plan (after the relevant legal regulation for this stage of the process). The inspector will not consider any earlier draft versions of the plan which the LPA may have consulted on.
Can a local plan be changed as a result of the examination?
Yes, if the inspector decides a plan is not ‘sound’ then they are usually required to recommend changes that would make it so. These changes are known as ‘main modifications’ and they have to be subject to public consultation. The inspector will consider any consultation responses on these proposed changes before reaching their final conclusions.
Can I get involved in the examination?
You have a legal right to appear before and be heard by the inspector at a hearing if:
- you made a comment (a ‘representation’), on the final draft of the plan (the ‘Regulation 19’ plan) that the LPA submitted for examination, and
- your comment asked for a change to be made to the plan – that is, it was an objection to the submitted plan
If you made a written objection and do not wish to say anything at a hearing, your comment on the final draft plan will still be considered by the inspector. The inspector will also consider all comments made in support of the plan. If you did not make comments on this version of the plan, you do not have a legal right to take part in the examination.
What will the hearing be like?
Each hearing session will consider a specific issue raised by the inspector who will lead a discussion with those who are participating. The LPA will take part in all the sessions because it is their plan.
For an average local plan there might be about 10 to 15 days of hearing sessions. These will take place in a physical room in the LPA’s area, virtually by video conference or a ‘blended’ mix of formats for each or different sessions. There will usually be anything from 2 to around 30 participants in each session.
The inspector will use the hearings to help them assess whether the plan is sound, and if it is not, what needs to be done to make it so. The inspector’s role is to hear what everyone has to say and to be impartial. They will make sure that people who are not familiar with this type of hearing are given a fair opportunity to contribute.
How can I best get ready for the hearing?
Hearings can feel daunting to those who are not used to them. However, you can make the most of them by:
- preparation - work out beforehand what you want to say to the inspector, so you can get your main points across. Consider having a check-list of your key points to cover on the day.
- be ready to explain your concerns, the reasons for them and what you would like changed - the inspector won’t expect members of the public to be experts in town planning. They will just want to understand your views about why you want the plan to be changed.
- be succinct – aim to express your points concisely in a way that gets directly to the heart of your concerns. If the inspector wants to find out more, they will ask questions.
Please do let the Programme Officer know as soon as possible if you have any specific needs or requirements to help you to attend or participate in the hearings.
Is there somewhere I can go to get help making my case?
It is the responsibility of everyone participating to make their own case. Sometimes this is straightforward and you may know exactly what you want to say. But if you may feel you would like advice from someone with more planning knowledge you could consider:
- asking the LPA and/or local councillors/politicians for help,
- paying someone with specialist planning expertise to provide advice or to represent you or
- seeking help from another source, such as Planning Aid England.
How will the inspector reach their conclusions?
The inspector will consider:
- all the evidence put together by the LPA to support the plan (including various technical reports)
- all the written comments made in response to the public consultation on the draft plan (both for and against)
- the discussion that takes place at the hearings
- national planning policy set by the government (because government expects local plans to be consistent with national policy)
In reaching their conclusions, inspectors are required to follow the Planning Inspectorate’s Code of Conduct. In particular, the way they carry out the examination must be fair, open and impartial.
Will the inspector visit the area?
The inspector will decide which sites and locations they need to visit to help them reach their conclusions. Visits may take place at any time during the examination and the inspector will usually do them on their own, unless they need to go on private land.
How long does a local plan examination take?
Most examinations take around a year to a year and a half, from start to end. Some take less and others take longer. Local plans are complex things to prepare and lots of people and organisations make comments on them. So, they do take time to examine.
Sometimes there may be just one set of hearings, perhaps lasting a few weeks. However, where plans are larger, more complex or contentious the hearings may be split into 2 or more stages with gaps in between.
What happens at the end of the examination?
At the end of the examination the inspector sends a report to the LPA. This will set out the inspector’s conclusions on the main issues and it will recommend any changes (‘main modifications’) the LPA needs to make the plan ‘sound’.
At this stage the examination is over and the LPA must decide whether to formally adopt the plan as local planning policy. However, the LPA can only adopt the plan if it includes the changes recommended by the inspector. They cannot adopt an ‘unsound’ plan.
Do any plans fail the examination?
The inspector is required to assess if the plan is sound and legally compliant and, if it is not, to recommend changes that would make it so (if the LPA requests that they do this). This happens in most examinations and, consequently, most plans are found sound in the end. Some plans need only a few changes, others need more significant ones. However, a small number of plans do not make it through to the end of the examination, either because they have problems that cannot be resolved or because the LPA decides for some reason that it does not wish to go ahead.
What can I do if I disagree with the inspector’s conclusions in their final report?
There are a number of things you could do:
- firstly, raise any concerns with the LPA because it is their responsibility to prepare and adopt the plan and to use it when making planning decisions
- if you think an inspector got something wrong you can make a complaint to the Planning Inspectorate. However, the Inspectorate has no powers to change a plan after it has been adopted
- if you think there has been a significant legal error in the way the examination was conducted, you could seek to challenge the plan in the Courts. However, before doing this, you should seek advice from someone with specific expertise in this area
It is common for participants and LPAs to have quite different views on the many issues the Inspector will decide upon. It is therefore inevitable that some participants will be unhappy with the outcome, particularly given that planning decisions are often controversial. However, the purpose of having consultation on a draft plan and then an examination is to allow people to have their say and for this to be considered. Ultimately, conclusions have to be reached and they can only be challenged in the Courts if they are not lawful.
Where do I find out more about a particular local plan examination?
Once a plan has been submitted for examination, the LPA will set up an examination website. This will be accessed from the LPA’s main website. The examination website will provide information about the examination, how it will be run and the hearings. It will say how you can contact the Programme Officer.
What does the Programme Officer do?
A Programme Officer is appointed by the LPA at the start of each examination. However, they are independent of the LPA and work with the inspector. Their job is to make sure the examination is well-organised. They act as the first point of contact for everyone involved in the examination, including in relation to the hearings, and they are the sole point of contact between the LPA, participants and the inspector (except in the hearings themselves).
Where can I find more detailed information about local plan examinations?
We provide more information about local plan examinations in this Procedure Guide. It also refers to the legislation that examinations work to.
Where can I find out more about national planning policy, including the tests of ‘soundness’ and national planning guidance?
You can find them here:
Explanation of some of the terms used
At its core planning is about deciding where new development should go and what it should be like. However, there can a few unfamiliar terms, some of which come from legislation.
Examiner – sometimes used instead of ‘inspector’ – basically the inspector appointed to examine the local plan
LPA – local planning authority – usually the local Council or National Park Authority
Main modifications – changes to the plan which the inspector recommends during the examination. The inspector can only recommend changes if they are needed to make the plan ‘sound’.
NPPF – National Planning Policy Framework – this is the government’s national planning policy. Local plans have to be consistent with it.
PPG – Planning Practice Guidance – this is the government’s national planning guidance. It explains how government’s national planning policy should be applied.
Planning Inspectorate - Our purpose is to deal with planning appeals, nationally significant infrastructure projects, examinations of local plans and some other planning-related and more specialist casework. We are an executive agency of government. That means our job is to provide the specific services mentioned here. We employ inspectors to do this work. We do not develop national planning policy or guidance.
Regulation 18 – This refers to an early stage of plan preparation set out in law and the consultation the LPA carries out at this stage. It is important to know that Inspectors do not consider comments made at this stage. They will only consider comments made at the final draft (‘Regulation 19’) stage.
Regulation 19 – This is a stage of plan preparation which is set out in law. It is often used to refer to the consultation which the LPA carries out on the draft local plan, immediately before it sends it in for examination. The Inspector will consider comments made at this stage
SCI – Statement of Community Involvement – each LPA has to produce one explaining how they will consult on their local plan.
Sound/soundness – national planning policy issued by the government states that local plans must meet 4 tests of soundness – in summary these are that the plan is positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national planning policy.
Planning Aid England have published a jargon buster which might also be helpful