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Local Plans (the development plan) explained

Updated: Dec 9, 2023


The development plan - often called a 'local plan' - is at the heart of the planning system. Prepared by the local planning authority, normally a local council, it is a document which sets out a long term plan for development of an area. It sets out an overall strategy and policies for the pattern, scale and design quality of places in that area.


The image is a policies map at the centre which shows where planning policy designations and site allocations in Local Plan apply to an area. The diagram illustrates the central role of the local plan in enabling the delivery of development to meet future need including commercial and industrial development, residential development and new parks and open spaces
The image is a policies map at the centre which shows where planning policy designations and site allocations in Local Plan apply to an area. The diagram illustrates the central role of the local plan in enabling the delivery of development to meet future need including commercial and industrial development, residential development and new parks and open spaces

What’s in a plan

Local Plans statutory development plans. Planning law requires that decisions on planning applications must be made in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise. The National Planning Policy Framework explains that these plans are required to make sufficient provision for:

  1. housing (including affordable housing), employment, retail, leisure and other commercial development;

  2. infrastructure for transport, telecommunications, security, waste management, water supply, wastewater, flood risk and coastal change management, and the provision of minerals and energy (including heat);

  3. community facilities (such as health, education and cultural infrastructure); and

  4. conservation and enhancement of the natural, built and historic environment, including landscapes and green infrastructure, and planning measures to address climate change mitigation and adaptation.


Local plans contain planning policies on the broad locations for development. llustrated on a key diagram will be the number of homes, the percentage of homes that should be affordable and key locations for commercial or industrial development. Land use designations (and area specific policies) and site allocations, identifying specific sites for development to meet needs, are identified on a policies map.

Image: Front Cover of Westminster City Plan Front Cover and Key Diagram Page

Image: Front Cover of Westminster City Plan Front Cover and Key Diagram Page


Here are a couple of examples of local plans and their associated policies maps which illustrate where the planning policies apply.



The development plan for an area can be made up of several documents, not just a single local plan document. A local plan is sometimes split into parts, with strategic policies in one document (this used to be called a 'Core Strategy') and site allocations in a different document. Other plan documents can be part of a development plan, including:

Stages of plan making

The main stages of Plan making are prescribed in law (The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012) and include:


1. Consultation on the local plan under ‘Regulation 18’ (so you will often see local plan documents with Regulation 18 in the title).

2. Publication of the local plan intended to be ‘submitted’ for examination for comments. This is dealt with under ‘Regulation 19’ (so you will often see documents for this stage of the local plan labelled with ‘Regulation 19’).

3. An independent examination of the Regulation 19 stage local plan by an independent Planning Inspector (more on this later).

4. A report from the Planning Inspector on whether the Local Plan is sound.

5. If the local plan is found sound, adoption of the local plan the Council.


This video, by the Planning Inspectorate, explains more about what a local plan is and how they are prepared:


The PAS Local Plan Route Mapper, aimed at plan makers in councils, explains these main stages of developing a Local Plan in more detail. It briefly addresses the different types of evidence and assessments that go into a local plan and provides tips and tools to help plan makers.


PAS Local Plan Route Mapper

Source: Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Website


Independent examinations

Because a council must use the development plan documents for an area to help determine whether a planning permission should be granted or refused, developers and property owners are obviously interested in what a plan says and how it might impact their site or future proposals. Residential and business communities also have an interest in the local plan as it can impact their neighbourhood or business premises. Infrastructure providers, such as the health service, waste, utilities providers will also want to understand the impacts of growth from development identified in the local plan.


Local plans need to be scrutinised for people to have confidence in them. Before a council can finalise and adopt the plan, it is subject to an independent examination - ‘a test’ - which takes place in public. Independent examinations are led by planning inspectors, appointed by the government, and who work for the Planning Inspectorate.


The role of the independent examination is to assess the extent to which a Local Plan is ‘sound’. The Planning Inspectorate has produced a useful video, explaining the process for making plans:


It is the Planning Inspector, and not the council, that decides how an independent examination will be run. This includes who can participate in which of the independent examination hearing sessions. Participation limited to those who have commented seeking changes to the version of the local plan published at the 'Regulation 19 stage'. However, all independent examination hearings are held in public so anyone can attend and watch. In addition, all correspondence to the Planning Inspector is published. The Planning Inspectorate has produced a useful guide to taking part: Local plans: taking part in examinations, Planning Inspectorate.


Why plan making takes sooooooooo long

It can take authorities anything from around three years to more than 10 to create a plan. One authority in England has been working on their plan since 1956!

The government is looking at reforming the planning process to speed up plan making. There are lots of reasons plans take too long to produce. One is that a number of the challenges and conflicts highlighted in our explainer Explainer: How planning works in England are battled out through a local plan process. Local plans and examinations on them tend to be dominated by discussions on housing numbers and can be particularly contentious in Green Belt areas.


An argument has been made that a strategic planning ‘void’ above the local area is exacerbating these problems and making planning for housing (and therefore the delivery of new homes) harder. Some people have made the case for strategic planning to be included in planning reforms, for example, Planning Reforms & the Role of Strategic Planning. Catriona Riddell has been a prominent voice in the call for a more strategic approach to planning*.











The slow timescale for plan production adds certain complications to the planning system. At any point in time there might be an adopted plan which is fast becoming out of date and an emerging plan. Planning applications may need to take account of both to varying degrees.


Learn More

If you are just starting out in a planning role or on a planning project, you can sign up for the Planning in 60 Minutes: A simple guide to town planning (England). The course covers planning applications, local plans, developer contributions (section 106 and CIL) and more.



Ready for a role in plan making?

Find your first role or you next one, on the Work In Planning Jobs Board.





* Catriona Ridell is a renowned expert in strategic planning and is passionate about it. She has even been known to pen poetry about strategic planning (no judgement implied, we have written songs about local plan examinations).

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