The Localism Bill brings forward a number of ways in which “neighbourhoods” can have a greater role in planning.
This might be through bringing forward a neighbourhood plan, to sit below the district level of development plan, or it might be by identifying development which, in the local context, should be permitted development justifying a neighbourhood development order (which could include Community Right to Build Orders).
Either way, the time seems to have come for the local voice to be heard. This might be in a positive way, by facilitating development eg, by identifying where development of certain kinds would be welcome, or it could be negative eg, by seeking designations which might hinder development.
The question of who can promote these initiatives is an interesting one. Where there is a parish council, then it will have power to do so. However, where there is no parish council, then a neighbourhood forum would need to be designated and this can be done even though no more than three residents of the relevant area are involved. This has, not surprisingly, led to some concerns and there was an expectation that the number might increase to at least 20 when the Bill was reissued in amended form on 14 March. In addition, in urban areas, where residential properties sit alongside businesses and other non-residential users, neighbourhood planning as per the Bill gives much greater weight to the views of residents. In the event, very few changes were incorporated when the Bill was reissued and none which are substantial.
The Budget brought additional points, however. In particular, businesses are to have a role in neighbourhood planning for their areas. We assume that the Bill will be amended to allow for this, and we will all have seen newspaper articles foretelling “Tesco planning”.
There are other aspects of the Bill which are interesting in this local context. The first is the concept of the “local referendum” which can be demanded by five per cent of the relevant area (which might be the whole of an authority’s area, or a single electoral area). The range of issues which might be voted on is very wide and the local authority would need to consider what action to take as a result of the outcome – and publish that. The issue in the referendum could be one in relation to planning – including a specific application, allocation or type of development so a “no wind farms here” vote would not be out of the question.
Another interesting local item is in relation to what are called “assets of community value”. This would require a local authority to maintain a list of such assets which are nominated by the “community” or which come forward through the local authority itself and which are of “community value”. How that expression will be applied in any case will depend on regulations to be made by the authority but the stakes are quite high because where property is included in the list, there are restrictions on its disposal.
From what we understand, and partly as a result of the publication on 17 March of the Select Committee’s recommendations on the abolition of RSS, which has encouraged the Government to announce environmental assessment of the revocation of the Regional Strategies, the Localism Bill will not now receive Royal Assent before the autumn of 2011. It seems likely that more amendments will be needed, certainly to deal with the concerns over the abolition of RSS, and we may well see more debate around these neighbourhood planning issues which have the potential to make quite an impact.