What is the Future for Neighbourhood Planning?
It’s coming up to 10 years since the notion of ‘Localism’ was taken up by the Conservative Party and used to justify a series of initiatives to devolve powers to local communities. Cynics might say it was really pursued as a way of saving money by reducing costly ‘big government’ in times of austerity and instead encouraging more, free of charge, voluntary effort. Localism comes in many guises. The Localism Act of 2011 comprises over 240 paragraphs, only 6 refer to Neighbourhood Planning; however these few provisions have led to an enormous amount of voluntary effort in Plan making across England.
Across the country over 2600 communities have embarked on the task of producing a Neighbourhood Plan and more than 800 of these have passed the referendum stage. The equivalent figures for the North West Region are over 180 plans started and more than 50 reaching the referendum stage so far. However, the pace of plans coming forward has slowed and there is much anecdotal, but no hard, evidence that many Neighbourhood Plan Groups have been struggling to complete the task or have given up altogether. Information collected by Planning Aid England volunteers in our Region (see Planning Aid England Research via the Resources tab) shows that 44 North West Plans started four or more years ago have not reached the next statutory stage of preparation.
There have also been numerous reported planning decision cases from across England where planning permission has been granted seemingly in contradiction of Neighbourhood Plan policies. The degree to which such decisions directly cut across Neighbourhood Plan provisions no doubt varies in practice with other factors (‘material considerations’) weighing in the balance, not least of which will have been the adjudged scale of the local housing supply.
Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that the Ministry (of Housing, Communities and Local Government) have been pondering how to maintain the Neighbourhood Plan making momentum and ways of bolstering their status. As part of this process they have been running a series of invitation only events around the country over the summer where leading people involved in Neighbourhood Planning have been asked for their views and suggestions relating to:
- The impacts of neighbourhood planning
- Issues experienced and ways to increase uptake in areas where neighbourhood planning hasn’t ‘taken off’
- How neighbourhood plans can be strengthened
As we’ve seen the impact of neighbourhood planning in terms of Plans being produced is considerable but to borrow the title of a Smiths song – what difference does it make? The underlying Government agenda has always been that Neighbourhood Plans are another way to boost the supply of housing. However, some leading commentators, such as consultants Lichfields, have reported that the overall increase in housing land supply attributable to Neighbourhood Plans is comparatively small.
Some would argue that neighbourhood planning is all about the small things and many Plans provide the policy support needed to achieve all manner of minor improvements and practical on-ground project implementation. However, perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is will neighbourhood planning have a lasting impact? Many groups find the task of preparing a Plan a huge, exhausting process such that the prospect of preparing a plan review is too much to contemplate. So, we might well find many Plans are a one off, never to be updated.
Neighbourhood Forums of course have an additional challenge as time goes by. Being designated for only five years, some have had to pursue re-designation so they can finish preparing their Plan. How many will bother to do so if they have completed the task?
Forums have a tough job right from the off and now receive little extra support from the government funding programme. At least parish councils have councillors familiar with the planning process, a paid member of staff (clerk) and a statutory right to raise funds through their precept, plus above all they have an enduring existence. Should Forums get a fast track to becoming parish councils? How many would want to? The title might put some off, but they could call themselves ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘community councils’.
The take-up of neighbourhood planning varies greatly from place to place around the country with metropolitan areas generally seeing less activity. Part of the reason for this is the need to establish Forums in the non-parished towns and cities. However, another reason is some metropolitan councils seem to have a complete downer on allowing any organisation other themselves plan the locality and have gone to extreme lengths to frustrate neighbourhood planning groups such that many have given up. The Ministry know who the councils are but fail to act.
At least larger and less deprived councils ought to be better resourced staff-wise to devote some time to supporting fledging groups. Many smaller district councils have barely enough planners to produce the Local Plan and all that goes with it, leaving little or no scope for Neighbourhood Plan assistance.
The government boasts that many millions of pounds are available to support the neighbourhood planning effort across England. However only about half of that is available as direct grant support. Nearly all the remainder supports one major consultancy to provide ‘Technical Support’ packages. Is this the best way to use the financial resource? Should cash strapped local planning authorities get a share of this funding to support groups?
What other assistance is out there? When the support programme was first run from 2012 to 2015 several organisations pitched in. Not least of which was Planning Aid England where the RTPI used government funding to employ planning advisors in every English Region, the North West had two such enablers and a fine job they did. However, when the government contract came up for renewal the RTPI declined to bid to be a leading player. As a result, the RTPI had the unenviable task of terminating employment contracts. It has no appetite to put itself in that position again.
Do Neighbourhood Plans need to be strengthened? They are already a fully-fledged part of the statutory Development Plan. Sometimes it appears planning officers fail to fully reflect the relevance and provisions of a Neighbourhood Plan when writing their reports on planning applications. Sometimes Planning Inspectors similarly overlook the Neighbourhood Plan, perhaps some can’t see beyond the ‘must have more housing’ mantra? Maybe national policy and guidance should be further tightened up to try to avoid such oversights by stipulating application/appeal reports must explicitly consider relevance of the Neighbourhood Plan.
The Ministry’s civil servants have no doubt found the timing of their events roadshow a little awkward. Arranged in advance of a new Prime Minister being ‘elected’ and their Departmental ministerial team changes. So, they found themselves asking the questions without knowing the likely future direction from their political masters. We’ll have to see what comes of this navel gazing…