With the continued roll-out of the Government’s Localism Agenda through Neighbourhood Planning and Devolution to the Regions, it has never been more important for individuals and companies involved in land and development to assess how well they engage with local communities.

This article charts the shifting planning and political landscape in this regard; and crucially highlights some of the potential threats and opportunities emerging on the horizon.

The Localism Act 2011 placed a legal duty on local planning authorities to support and advise groups that want to undertake Neighbourhood Planning.

These groups can include:

  • Parish Councils and;
  • Groups of people (including residents, businesses and local councillors) who are designated as a ‘Neighbourhood Forum’.

In summary, Neighbourhood Planning allows communities to prepare:

  • Neighbourhood Development Plans
  • Neighbourhood Development Orders; and
  • Community Right to Build Orders

Once a Neighbourhood Plan passes an independent inspection and a final stage of gaining the approval of a majority of voters in the neighbourhood, it comes into force. It then has the same legal status as a Local Plan – becoming an official development plan document which carries statutory weight. They are used to establish general planning policies for the development and use of land in a neighbourhood.

Neighbourhood Development Orders also come into force once they pass an independent inspection and a final stage of gaining the approval of a majority of voters in the neighbourhood.

Neighbourhood Development Orders can grant planning permission for major developments schemes, new houses, a new shop or pub, or permit extensions of a certain size or scale across the whole neighbourhood area.

Community Right to Build Orders give permission for small-scale, site specific developments by a Community Group. Their preparation requires a slightly different process requiring the formation of a constituted Community Group rather than a Neighbourhood Forum. Parish and Town Councils can also lead on the Community Right to Build Orders.

Local Authorities must provide support to help people undertake Neighbourhood Planning; and they also check that a Plan or Order meets certain minimum conditions.

On 25th April 2013 the Government introduced incentives for communities to undertake Neighbourhood Planning. Through the Community Infrastructure Levy (Amendment) Regulations 2013 they ensured that areas with a Neighbourhood Plan in place would be able to receive 25% of the revenues from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) arising from the development that they proposed to accept. The money is paid directly to Parish and Town Councils and can then be used to fund community projects. There are also disincentives for areas who charge a Community Infrastructure Levy but who do not have a Neighbourhood Plan in place – with their potential revenues from CIL being capped at only 15% of the revenue from the development they approve.

Interestingly, in The Housing and Planning Bill currently progressing through the House of Commons, new proposals could also require Local Authorities to produce a report of the financial benefits associated with accepting a planning application so that local communities can make better informed decisions when deciding whether to object to or support planning applications. This could potentially include an illustration of how much an area would stand to benefit from gains like CIL revenue and the New Homes Bonus.

There are currently 1677 neighbourhood planning areas and this is a substantial increase from this time last year. It is further evidence of the growing emphasis the Government is placing on Localism and Neighbourhood Planning. (Current information relating to the status of Neighbourhood Planning in each area can be found here.

On 20th November 2015 the Government also published ‘Neighbourhood Planning and Local Planning Service Redesign and Capacity Building: Pilot Programme for Local Authorities’ which announced that a pot of £600,000 resource grant funding is being made available in the 2015-2016 financial year to be awarded to a series of pilot authorities to help them:

  • better support Neighbourhood Planning by piloting ways of making Neighbourhood Planning an integral part of their planning service; identify ways of involving or delegating planning decisions to Neighbourhood Planning groups, or
  • make changes to their service to ensure that they have an up to date Local Plan in place by 2017.

In the Government’s recent Autumn Statement they additionally stated that they will ensure that local communities can allocate land for housing through Neighbourhood Plans – even if that land is not allocated in the Local Plan.

Neighbourhood Planning is therefore advancing at quite a pace and, with it, a shifting of power away from Whitehall and into the hands of local communities and local councils at all levels. With this trend coming hand-in-hand with increasing devolution to the Regions, a noteworthy shift of power is emerging in planning which all stakeholders need to be aware of as new threats and opportunities to projects emerge from the shifting landscape.

The Planning Minister Brandon Lewis perhaps helpfully set out in oral evidence to the Department for Communities and Local Government Select Committee in the Planning and Productivity Inquiry where the hearts and minds of local communities will be won and lost when he emphasised that:

“We all know we want to see more housing in this country. If you want to see more housing, either as a politician, as a local community or as a developer, the easiest way to do that is to have the community more accepting of development, and communities are accepting of good-quality development of an appropriate type in an appropriate place.”

An interesting point Paris Smith colleagues and I discussed at a recent conference attended by DCLG in London is that it is going to be more important than ever for developers to try and engage in the Neighbourhood Plan making process in any areas where they are likely to look to develop in the future.

Like a prospective son-in-law trying to gain the approval of his future mother-in-law before proposing to her daughter; developers will need to genuinely engage with communities to demonstrate their positive credentials at an early stage in order to more easily justify that their long-term involvement in the development of a community will be beneficial and genuine. Fostering good relations with residents and communities early on is not only the right thing for that community but, if exercised correctly, should also reduce objections to planning proposals later down the line and reduce mistrust and a lack of transparency between developer and the local community. If any refusals do then result in appeal, developers will be well positioned to illustrate to the Planning Inspectorate that they have actively previously engaged in the Neighbourhood Plan making process and therefore demonstrated a genuine interest in developing a local area in a positive, thoughtful and engaging manner with the community.

With the rise in neighbourhood planning looking set to pick up pace in the current Parliament; the importance of proper engagement with local communities cannot be understated. For the Government thinks it is not only right that developers show willingness to engage early with local residents; but that it also makes perfect sense for developers to take the opportunity to identify potential problems early and to work towards creating successful and innovative schemes that offer great value to communities and developers alike.

Like a local resident recently said to me, “this piece of land in the village is like Grandma’s wedding ring, we will only hand it over to who we feel we can genuinely entrust it to.”