Is Neighbourhood Planning at a Fork in the Road?

Written by Julian Jackson.

Has the interest of local communities in neighbourhood planning started to wane? Understandably, Neighbourhood Plan making has been more difficult over the last 12 months with all the restrictions brought on by the pandemic. However, will Plan preparation activity pick up again once the full freedoms of personal association are restored? Perhaps more fundamentally will producing a Neighbourhood Plan typically be a one-off task and not one that endures over the long term?

The latest research by Planning Aid England volunteers in the North West reveals the tide may be turning away from neighbourhood planning. Work was started on only 2 new Plans in the year, by far the lowest figure since the annual survey of activity was first done in 2017. This may mean that most of those communities who want to produce a Plan have already embarked upon that journey. However, there are also strong indications that many of those that started the process may never complete the task. Certainly, a significant number of Qualifying Bodies in the North West have found Plan making hard going.

A particular focus of the research this time was the quarter (53) of all the Plans in the Region started over 4 years ago that appeared not to have been progressed to a statutory stage beyond initial designation. The results reveal that 6 of these Plans had now reached a later statutory stage and that some other Neighbourhood Plan groups had carried out other post-designation tasks, although in some cases not recently. However, establishing exactly what the ‘live’ status is of many of these ‘slow-moving’ Plans has proved to be difficult.

The research concluded that work on 11 of the 53 Plans had definitely been abandoned but also in a further 15 cases no Plan preparation progress was found, so in all probability work on these has ceased as well. Progress on a further 6 Plans was recorded as temporarily ‘paused’, typically this was because of COVID-19 issues.

As to reasons for this slow and faltering progress a combination of factors is probably at play. A RTPI webinar held on 7 October 2020 examined possible causes:

  • Are some neighbourhood planning groups trying to produce a Plan for the wrong reasons or started off with false expectations?
  • Is the whole process just too hard for the non-planners that typically make up Plan steering groups?
  • Is maintaining community volunteer involvement over the sustained period it takes to produce a Plan a commitment some groups can’t maintain?

The webinar can be viewed on the RTPI YouTube channel

There is no doubt from the research that Neighbourhood Plan making is often harder for Forums compared to Parish/Town Councils. A total of 32 Plans in the North West have been started by Forums, 16% of all the Qualifying Bodies. Forums typically experience a steep initial learning curve in fully appreciating even the basic aspects of town and country planning, whereas this is common knowledge to Parish/Town Councils given their inclusion in parts of the planning process, such as being consulted on planning applications. Since 2012, following the enabling legislation, 197 Neighbourhood Plans have been started in the North West; 77 of these have so far been completed ie ‘made’; a ‘success’ rate of 39%. The number of made Plans will undoubtedly increase in the next few years as the later starters get to the finish line. However, to date the success rate of Forum-produced Plans is just 18%.

Forums are typically located in more deprived communities than Town/Parish Councils. Looking at all the Neighbourhood Areas in the Region in relation to the Index of Multiple Deprivation rankings reveals that a far lower proportion of Qualifying Bodies have completed the task in the more deprived communities. In the two most deprived quartiles the proportion of made Plans averages out at 26%, whereas it is 57% in the two least deprived quartiles.

Another aspect of Forums is that they have a limited ‘life’ of 5 years. After then they need to be re-designated to formally continue to exercise their planning powers. Several Forums in the Region have had to become re-designated before being able to complete making a Plan. Several others over 5 years old have not sought re-designation since finishing work on a Plan, so those Forums have officially ceased to exist and have no powers to carry out a Plan review.

Town and Parish Councils can take as long as they like to prepare a Plan although early evidence work may become out of date and need to be re-done to properly inform the eventually emerging Plan. Many of the groups that have been slow but not given up work on their Plan are Town/Parish Councils. It is far easier for these Bodies to resume work as they have a perpetuating existence through the election of councillors. When a Forum has lost membership and fallen below the required number of 21 at the time of first designation, finding replacement members for re-designation can be a significant challenge.

Local planning authorities are required to help Neighbourhood Plan groups and over the four years that the research has been carried out that degree of assistance has measurably improved, but only a little. There are still wide variations across the North West in the levels of council support offered. There is little doubt that deficiencies in this regard have contributed to the lack of progress on some Plans and may account for why some local authority areas have no Neighbourhood Plans at all.

The annual number of made Plans in the Region appears to have peaked, although 2020 was not a typical year with the COVID-19 restrictions preventing 5 Plan referendum votes from taking place. In a normal year, all of those Plans are likely to have received majority community support in the vote and gone on to be made. Adding those 5 Plans to the 9 that were formally made gives a total of 14 for the year, the lowest number of completed Plans since 2016.

It is interesting to also consider sub-regional variations in Plan making take-up. With no new designations in the last 12 months there are signs that most if not all the Town and Parish Councils that intend to prepare a Neighbourhood Plan in the two districts with most Plans already – Cheshire East (with 54 Plans) and Cheshire West and Chester (36) – have already embarked on that journey. But that only covers half the parishes in Cheshire East and a third of those in Cheshire West and Chester.

Eden in Cumbria is the only other local authority area with over a dozen (14) Plans started and given that the Upper Eden Plan (the first in England to be made) covers 17 parishes, the potential Neighbourhood Plan coverage is this district is extensive. However, only one other Plan in Eden has been made whilst 9 others have not progressed to a statutory stage after designation in at least four years. This points to an early widespread enthusiasm for making Plans not being maintained, again the reasons for this are not clear from the research.

Perhaps the most fundamental indication of whether neighbourhood planning will endure is to see how many Bodies have commenced a Plan review. Although only 7 Plans in the North West are over 5 years old (the typical duration triggering a review) another 13 will fall into that category by the end of 2021. To date the annual monitoring work has not identified any Plan reviews that are underway. This begs the question what proportion of Plans will be reviewed? Was the initial experience such a big task that few groups would want to repeat the exercise? Only time will tell.

So, it remains to be seen whether neighbourhood planning will take the road to an enduring future where the majority of Plans are kept up to date through periodic reviews. Or whether statutory plan making by local communities proves to be short lived as most Qualifying Bodies choose to turn away from that path. November 2021 will mark ten years from when the Localism Act came into law. If the coming year were to be a ‘normal’ one, then maybe the future of neighbourhood planning would become clearer however with the likelihood of personal restrictions continuing in some form for at least the next few months it may well take a while longer for a true picture to emerge.  One ray of light may be that with many folk re-discovering their immediate surroundings during lockdown local walks and a new-found sense of community, a desire to plan for neighbourhoods may be rekindled.