Given that over 50% of Britain's local councils are still to adopt Local Plans, is the window of opportunity for local residents to take control of development in their local area about to close?
At the time the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published (27 March 2012), transitional arrangements were put in place to allow local authorities with a post-2004 Local Plan that was broadly in line with the NPPF a 12 month period to bring their Local Plan up to date. These planning authorities were allowed to give full weight to their existing policies for 12 months even if there was a limited degree of conflict with the NPPF.
Although practical assistance has been provided to help local authorities meet the 27 March 2013 deadline, according to figures published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) only 47.9% of local authorities have put in place an adopted Local Plan. CPRE indicate that 22.9% of councils have published (but are yet to formally adopt) a Local Plan, whilst nearly 30% have not published a Local Plan at all.
CPRE has blamed government cuts and the abolition of regional plans for the slow uptake of some local authorities publishing draft Local Plans. It has called for a 12-18 month extension to the NPPF transitional period to ensure that unsustainable and speculative developments are not allowed to proceed and that local people have an opportunity to influence where development takes place in their local area.
It seems, however, that this plea is falling on deaf ears in the corridors of Whitehall. Nick Boles has countered the CPRE figures by stating that 7 out of 10 local councils now have published Local Plans compared to 3 out of 10 previously and that "good progress" has been made across the remainder of councils. Boles re-stated that strong protections remain in place for the green belt, open countryside and areas of outstanding natural beauty when considering planning applications against the planning framework as a whole.
Against this background, one of the first success stories for the government's localism agenda has emerged. The recent referendum in Upper Eden, East Cumbria resolved to adopt a Neighbourhood Plan – the first adoption of its kind in the UK.
The referendum brought out three times the number of voters who turned out for their recent police and crime commissioner elections and what is more, 90% of the 1,452 votes cast by local residents (33.7% turnout) were in favour of adopting the Neighbourhood Plan, which covers 16 parishes in East Cumbria. The Neighbourhood Plan will now be formally included in Eden District Council's development plan this coming April and will become material in terms of planning applications for development in those 16 parishes in East Cumbria.
Despite CPRE's protestations, extending the transitional period set out in the framework would be unlikely to encourage the remaining 50% of councils to expedite adoption of their up to date Local Plans. The 27 March 2013 deadline is likely to remain in place and in the meantime, the 50% of councils still to adopt their Local Plan should take a leaf out of East Cumbria's book. Localism can work – but it needs the right combination of enthusiastic local residents and hard-working councils to get it off the ground.