A guide to the Local Plan

What is the Local Plan?

Every local authority needs a Local Plan, which is a land-use planning document that sets out how the Borough should be developed over the next 15 years, in line with the requirements of national policy and legislation. The Local Plan comprises a book of policies and a map of proposals that will replace the saved policies of the Council’s existing Unitary Development Plan, adopted in February 2000.

The Local Plan must set the overall requirement for housing and other development over the Plan period and should identify enough land for development to meet this requirement. Once adopted, following independent examination, the Local Plan will be used to make decisions on individual planning applications for the next 15 years.

The Local Plan is the Council’s plan for the future of Wirral. It will play an important part in shaping the future of the Borough’s towns, villages, infrastructure, environment, and economy. We need a Local Plan to:

  • plan for the infrastructure, homes and jobs that our residents need
  • support the regeneration of Birkenhead and other areas of the Borough
  • support the development of our local economy
  • support more sustainable travel
  • protect and enhance our historic and natural environment

The Local Plan sets out the Council’s priorities for development and gives clear guidance on what development will and won't be permitted in your area. The Local Plan covers housing, commercial, public, and private developments. The Local Plan will impact on every resident and business. 

What has been happening since the end of the Local Plan Examination hearings last year (2023)?

The Council developed the draft Local Plan following more than three years of intense work and two rounds of extensive public consultation. It was then submitted to the Government who appointed Planning Inspectors to assess the Local Plan. This included a number of hearings held in public.

The Inspectors listened to evidence for 19 days spread over eight weeks and heard from a wide range of participants. They also had extensive written submissions to consider.

The Inspectors used the hearings to help them assess whether the proposed Local Plan is ‘legally compliant’ and ‘sound’ in terms of the requirements set out in national legislation and in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework. 

The Inspectors have now provided a post-hearing note, which sets out their initial thinking.

What is the latest update? 

The Inspectors post-hearing note published on 4 March 2024 means that Wirral’s Local Plan is now a major step closer to being formally adopted. The note says that while the Local Plan as it currently stands is “unsound” it may be capable of being made sound through changes to the Local Plan – known as “main modifications” – to enable the Local Plan to be adopted. 

This is a normal part of the process.  The Council has already submitted and published some of the suggested modifications that it believes are necessary to make the Local Plan sound in response to the hearing sessions, so we are already well advanced in this process. The note now sets out where the Inspectors think the Plan should be changed.

It is important to note that the Inspectors have emphasised that their post-hearing note reflects their initial thinking and is without prejudice to any findings they may ultimately come to in their final report. 

What does ‘soundness’ mean?

All Local Plans must be examined by an independent Inspector to assess whether the Local Plan has been prepared in accordance with the duty to cooperate, other legal and procedural requirements, and whether it is ‘sound’.  

The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework sets out four ‘tests of soundness’, which are that the Local Plan is positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy.

Representations on the Local Plan must have clearly described why the Local Plan does or does not meet these tests. 

What are Main Modifications?

‘Main modifications’ are changes to the Local Plan that are required to resolve any soundness or compliance issues that the Inspectors identify.

The Council has already put forward some suggested main modifications in Examination library document DSH02 to assist the Inspectors in their deliberations. The Inspectors have now asked the Council to suggest further main modifications to address the points raised in their post-hearing note. 

What are Additional Modifications?

‘Additional modifications’ are minor changes that the Council would also like to make to the Local Plan to improve the presentation or to address or correct any typographical or factual errors, which are not necessary to resolve soundness or legal compliance issues. These additional modifications are not examined or recommended by the Inspectors but will be published by the Council for comment alongside the main modifications.

What have the Inspectors said about the Plan Period?

The Submission Draft Local Plan proposed a plan period of 2021-2037.

In response to the Inspectors questions at the hearings the Council set out three options in a Local Plan Timeframe Paper DSH09, which was subsequently amended in the Hearing Statement Update paper WBC039.

The Inspectors have accepted the Council’s preferred scenario of moving the start date for the Local Plan to April 2022 and the end date to March 2040, to allow for 15 full monitoring years on adoption. The Inspectors post-hearing letter therefore states that: “The Plan should run from 2022 to 2040, i.e. from the monitoring years 2022/23 to 2039/40”

What have the Inspectors said about the overall housing requirement?

The Submission Draft Local Plan identified a housing requirement of 779 dwellings per annum based on the Government’s standard methodology for calculating housing need plus an uplift of 6 dwellings per annum to support economic growth. In addition, an allowance of 50 dwellings per annum was added for demolition replacement. The stated total annual requirement was therefore 835 dwellings per annum and the total need identified for 2021-2037 was 13,360 dwellings. 

The updated housing trajectory submitted by the Council to the examination in document WBC046 recalculated the Local Plan housing requirement to be 14,383 dwellings, equivalent to an annual average of 799 dwellings per annum over the course of the updated plan period. 

The Inspectors post-hearing letter now states that: “…for the plan to be positively prepared, over an 18-year plan period the overall minimum housing requirement should be 14,400.”, which is equivalent to an annual average 800 new dwellings over the whole of the Plan period.

What have the Inspectors said about our housing land supply? 

The Submission Draft Local Plan identified a supply of 16,322 dwellings, equivalent to an average of 1,020 dwellings per annum and the calculations included a buffer for potential slippage / non-implementation over the then Plan period.

The updated housing trajectory submitted by the Council to the examination in document WBC046 identified a proposed supply of 17,220 dwellings, equivalent to 957 dwellings per annum, again incorporating a significant buffer for potential slippage / non-implementation over the updated Plan period. 

The Inspectors have reviewed the extensive evidence submitted to them and the discussions in the hearings in respect of allowances, site allocations and other deliverable areas. Their post-hearing note states that in broad terms they are satisfied that some sites and some other deliverable areas will be likely deliver as the Council anticipate, although others may not. As such, their view is that ‘…the Plan is likely to demonstrably enable delivery of around 12,000 dwellings over an 18-year period…’

What have the Inspectors said about our 5-year Housing land supply and what is a stepped trajectory?

The Inspectors recommend that the Plan should incorporate a stepped housing requirement. This will allow the Council to provide for a lower number of homes in the early years of the Local Plan and to provide for a higher number of homes in the later years of the Local Plan, to meet the total number of new homes that will be required to 2040. 

The Inspectors recommend ‘…a requirement of 500 dwellings per annum for years 1 to 5, 840 for years 6 to 10 and 1,000 for year 11 onwards. The Inspectors have not asked the Council to find more sites.  .

What does an ‘early review’ mean?

Councils must monitor their local plans every year and review their local plans every five years to make sure they are still fit for purpose and amend them if they find that they need updating. The Inspectors want the Council to include a policy related to early review ‘...to ensure that the plan is positively prepared…’ 

This means that the Council will need to set out the circumstances under which it would review the plan before the normal 5-year period. Therefore, if an early review was triggered, and that review concluded that further changes were needed to the Local Plan, for example to better deliver the number of homes required, a new Local Plan would need to be prepared earlier than would normally be expected.

Will the Council need to identify more sites for older people’s accommodation?

The Inspectors are asking the Council to make a policy provision for a minimum of 1,149 residential care places for older people in addition to the overall housing requirement for 14,400 new dwellings. They are not asking the Council to find or allocate any new sites for this accommodation.

The Local Plan currently provides for residential care places for older people to be provided in new developments though criteria-based policies for specialist housing and provision will be monitored throughout the Plan period.

What is the implication of removing the anticipated supply from empty homes?

The Government defines long term empty homes as dwellings which have been unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for over six months.  The Council has had a long-standing programme of work to bring empty homes back into use and this will continue. 

The Inspectors do not however believe that these dwellings should count towards meeting the requirement for new homes that is to be included in the Local Plan.  This means that 1,583 units will need to be taken out of the Council’s anticipated supply of new homes between 2022 and 2040, and this is included in the Inspectors calculations regarding how many homes the plan will deliver. 

What is the implication of taking no account of the allowance for ‘windfalls’ and ‘net conversions / changes of use’ in years 1 to 3 of five-year housing land supply?

The Council had included an allowance for new dwellings that would in future be delivered on currently unidentified sites, known as ‘windfalls’, of 30 dwellings per annum. It had also included an allowance for the net gain in new dwellings that would be added from future conversions and changes of use of 100 dwellings per annum.   While the Inspectors were content with the annual figures in themselves, in order that the Plan’s approach is justified, they do not want the Plan to take account of them during 2023/24, 2024/25 and 2025/26.   

This means that 390 units will need to be taken out of the Council’s anticipated supply of new homes between 2022 and 2040 and this is included in the Inspectors calculations regarding how many homes the plan will deliver.

What are the implications of the Inspectors recommendations for affordable housing?

Affordable housing is defined in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework as housing, for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market, including housing that provides a subsidised route to home ownership and/or is for essential local workers, and which complies with one or more of the definitions set out in the NPPF Glossary relating to either affordable housing for rent, starter homes, discounted market sales housing or any other affordable routes to home ownership.

The Local Plan already sets out the percentage of new affordable housing which should be provided in new market housing developments, based on the viability of developing in different areas of the Borough.  The Inspectors want the Council to modify the Local Plan policy to give weight to schemes that will provide a level of affordable housing above those percentages. This will allow a higher level of affordable housing to be secured on the existing sites identified, where this is possible.

What are the implications of the Inspectors recommendations on viability?

The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework requires the new development identified in the Local Plan to be deliverable over the Plan period. The process of assessing viability at the plan-making stage includes looking at whether the value generated by a development is more than the cost of developing it. 

The Inspectors have reviewed the extensive evidence submitted to them and have asked the Council to include a new policy on viability in the Local Plan. A footnote in the Inspectors post-hearing note indicates that the new policy should include reference to the Council seeking to secure grant funding, to the circumstances in which a viability assessment may be justified, and that a balanced view will be arrived at in decision-taking in respect of the implications of viability. 

What are the implications of the Inspectors recommendations on energy efficiency?

Energy efficiency is the process of reducing the amount of energy required to provide products and services. In the context of the Local Plan, insulating a building also allows it to use less heating and cooling energy to achieve and maintain a thermal comfort.

The Local Plan currently includes policies to promote sustainable construction, renewable and low carbon energy and to require development to be ‘zero carbon ready by design’ from the day of the adoption of the Local Plan. The Inspectors are asking the Council to modify its policies to be consistent with the most up-to-date statement of national policy. 

The Council is reviewing this at present. It may mean that the Local Plan’s policies will not be able to go beyond current or planned building regulations and that new homes will not be required to be net zero ready rather stay in line with building regulations which are being updated in 2025.

What are the next steps? 

The post-hearing note from the Inspectors asks the Council to continue to work up the modifications to the Local Plan that are needed to take account of the detailed advice set out in the note. Officers are now assessing the implications of the advice and working on the required modifications, which will take some time to complete. Once the modifications are agreed with the Inspectors and the council has undertaken some assessments that are required i.e. Sustainability Appraisal and Habitat Regulations Assessment, there will be a 6-week consultation period on the modifications that are being proposed to be included the final Local Plan. 

It is important to note that the Local Plan remains under examination and that the consultation on modifications will be carried out on behalf of the Inspectors. The Council’s role is to publicise the consultation in line with the necessary legal requirements, to collect and collate responses and to pass them onto the Inspectors, who will then be responsible for considering what further changes may need to be made to the Local Plan before it can be adopted.  The Council will not know which of the changes will need to be taken forward until a final report has been received from the Inspectors.

Who do I contact if I have any questions or would like to obtain specific documents?

You can contact the Forward Planning Team:

By email: localplan@wirral.gov.uk or By telephone: 0151 691 8235

The previous Guide to the Local Plan which accompanied the Local Plan as it was submitted for examination can be viewed here: 

Archive Guide to the Local Plan