This is entry number 285, published on 13 October 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry reports on consultation on the new neighbourhood planning regime.

In a busy week for infrastructure planning (IPC Decision Day tomorrow!), the government has today launched a consultation on the regulations that put flesh on the bones of the neighbourhood planning regime.  They make interesting reading.  The consultation is open until 5 January 2012 and details can be found here.

The 'basic conditions'

Neighbourhood plans must comply with four basic conditions:

  • they must have appropriate regard to national policy;
  • they must conform to the strategic elements of the local plan;
  • they must be compatible with EU obligations (which is likely to mean Strategic Environmental Assessment); and
  • they must be compatible with human rights obligations.

Note that the draft regulations do not deal with EU obligations, nor details of referendums, which since they are common to various other Localism Bill innovations will be in separate regulations.

The land grab

Parish councils are the only bodies that can become neighbourhood forums in their areas - elsewhere it is a free-for-all.  To become a neighbourhood area you will have to produce a statement that

  • names the neighbourhood forum, contains its constitution and gives contact details;
  • says why the applicant qualfies as a neighbourhood forum.
  • names and sets out the area it covers (i.e. its geographical limits), and
  • says why the area is suitable for neighbourhood planning.

I predict a certain amount of jockeying for how to split up unparished places - urban areas, mostly.  It isn't first come, first served, however - if one organisation comes up with a proposed area, then it will be consulted upon by the local authority and others can propose alternatives, between which the local authority will choose.

Mini Planning Act regime

Once a neighbourhood forum has been set up for a neighbourhood area, the next stage is for it to produce a plan.

This part of the regime is to have many features of the Planning Act regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), so aficionados of the latter can become instant experts on the former.  The two regimes are mutually exclusive and cover all development, i.e. anything that is not an NSIP can be the subject of a neighbourhood plan.

There is to be compulsory consultation on a neighbourhood plan - a six week period rather than the four for a Planning Act project The wording is like the clause in the Localism Bill for consultation on major planning applications - it must be brought to the attention of the majority of those who live or work in the area. There is no prescribed list of statutory bodies to consult, but any whose interests are affected should be consulted (i.e. more flexible than the Planning Act, but more onus on the neighbourhood forum to get it right).

After the end of the consultation, the neighbourhood forum can apply to the local authority with

  • the plan and its title (how about the xxxx Area Neighbourhood Plan),
  • a statement about how it satisfies the 'basic conditions', and
  • a consultation statement - not unlike a consultation report for a Planning Act project.

The plan will then be examined by an independent examiner.  As with the Planning Act, the presumption is that this will be done by written representations, but there will be a possibility of having hearings.  The examiner must decide whether the plan meets the four 'basic conditions'.

The local authority then decides whether to put the plan to a referendum, and if it is passed (by a majority of those voting), it will become part of the development plan.

Not for NIMBYs

Two CLG officials having kindly subjected themselves to interrogation by planning professionals at CB Richard Ellis on Friday, I have worked out how the neighbourhood planning regime will operate against those who would use it to prevent development.  It is not the second, but the first of the 'basic conditions' that is the key one there.  I had previously thought that the identification of what were the strategic elements of the local plan was going to be the crucial issue to be decided by independent examiners.

That will still be important, but I think it will be failure to have regard to national policy that will be the weapon that is used to rule out development-avoiding neighbourhood plans.  For example, if a neighbourhood plan says there is to be no housing development or wind farms in its area (to take two random examples), its proponents could argue that it does not conflict with the strategic elements of the local plan, since such development could be accommodated elsewhere in the local authority's area.

That argument may or may not work, but it is more likely to be national housing and energy policy that will operate to rule out such a neighbourhood plan.  Both housing and energy infrastructure are urgently needed and there should not therefore be 'no go areas' for either of them.