Changes to the Planning System

The Localism Act 2011 received the Royal Assent in November 2011 and has been brought into effect progressively since then. Part 6 of the Act makes important changes to Planning Law.

On 27 March 2012 the Department for Communities and Local Government published the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This took effect immediately and replaced most Planning Policy Statements, which had previously guided planning decisions, and various other Government publications (see NPPF Annex 3).

One of the purposes of the Localism Act is stated to be:

“Reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective.”

Alongside this, the NPPF creates a “presumption in favour of sustainable development.”

Note that neither the Act nor the NPPF change the basic and longstanding planning principle that planning applications should be determined in accordance with the Development Plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The NPPF itself does however become a material consideration in this context. For this reason, it is vital that Schools and Universities co-operate with the officers in charge of strategic planning at the local planning authority and, now, with Parish Councils etc as discussed below, to ensure that both recognise in their adopted policies, and allow for, any new development contemplated by the School or University during the plan period.

Neighbourhood Planning

Section 116 of the Localism Act introduces the concept of Neighbourhood Planning, described by some as “the heart of the act”. The Section provides a framework within which Parish or Town Councils, or where these do not exist, Neighbourhood Forums may prepare a Neighbourhood Plan for their areas, subject to local planning authority approval and a local referendum, which once in place will in certain circumstances take precedence over other statutory planning documents.

A Neighbourhood Plan may apply to all or part of a Parish or Town Council area, or where there is no such Council to an area designated by a Neighbourhood Forum.

We have long advised for schools and universities contemplating development to adopt a proactive stance in relation to local planning, and in particular the preparation of a masterplan for the area of the campus, which can be used as the foundation for negotiations for favourable policies in local plan documents. The new system should enable this process to be taken one stage further, in that a masterplan could either be adopted in its own right as a Neighbourhood Plan for the campus, or as part of a Neighbourhood Plan for a wider area. Where two or more institutions are neighbours, or have campuses within one council area, potential for co-operation obviously exists.

A masterplan should cover a 10 to 15 year period, should be based on the school or university’s plans for expansion, and should take careful account of known planning constraints. By way of example, one school we have advised lies entirely within an area of outstanding Natural Beauty, where proposed locations for new buildings had to be based primarily on a careful assessment of landscape impacts. For many older institutions, the presence of listed buildings (Designated Heritage Assets in current parlance) will be an important factor both in terms of conversion/updating and the location of new buildings.

Implications of the National Planning Policy Framework

The NPPF presents a succinct and balanced framework within which a positive approach should be taken to planning decisions where the proposed scheme fits the definition of “sustainable development”. The decision making process should involve local people at all stages, including the preparation of Neighbourhood Plans, and should proactively support business and other commercial and institutional developments.

Neighbourhood Development Orders

Taking the process one stage further, the Localism Act creates the possibility of local “permitted development” orders which could be used e.g. to provide automatic approval for extensions, changes of use and other minor developments outside the ambit of the national Permitted Development Order and for which a specific planning application would otherwise be required.  Similarly, Community Right to Build Orders will give community organisations the ability to take forward development in their area without the need to apply for planning permission subject to certain limiting criteria.

The Formal Process

Every Neighbourhood Plan will require prior approval from the relevant local planning authority. Their task will be to check that the proposed plan fits with any others proposed within their area, has sensible geographic boundaries and is supported by a reasonable proportion of the community. Once their initial approval has been granted, they will also be required to participate in the process and provide general support and guidance. At a later stage the draft Neighbourhood Plan will be inspected by an independent examiner who may recommend changes if it does not meet the relevant criteria. It must then be approved by a community referendum organised by the local council. In that referendum the plan must be supported by at least 50% of those voting before it can be brought into force. Once it is in force, it carries significant legal weight as part of the development plan to be taken into account in planning decisions, and may in certain circumstances take precedence over the relevant local plan.

Some government funding is available for the first tranche of neighbourhood plans.

Practical Implications for Schools and Universities

For any school or university contemplating new development within the 10 to 15 year timescale referred  to above, the first step following, or alongside preparation of the masterplan, should be to establish whether the Parish or Town Council for the area is considering embarking on the neighbourhood planning process. If so, have they already decided to include the campus within the area of the proposed Neighbourhood Plan?  If not, should they be invited to do so?

If no such action is being considered locally, should the school or university proceed alone in proposing a Neighbourhood Plan for its own area, or choose to co-operate with a local council, or Neighbourhood Forum in preparing a plan for a wider area?

In each case it will be necessary to consider whether plans for development of the School or University are likely to conform with, and be approved by the opinions of the local population.  It will also be necessary to consider whether any other institution should be invited to join forces in this planning process.

In general terms, it may be said that the planning system will help those who help themselves.  As mentioned above, we have long recommended the preparation of a masterplan by any School or University contemplating significant new development, and timely submission to the Local Planning Authority so that this may be taken into account in their plan making process.  Participation in neighbourhood planning should be seen as a supplement to, rather than substitute for such masterplanning, but should enable an institution to make its case for its own development proposals in a more focused and positive way at a local level.

PS. Many schools and universities will have listed buildings on their campuses. The NPPF referred to above requires local planning authorities to ensure that the historic environment is adequately addressed in their local plans, that decisions relating to Designated Heritage Assets are based on a full understanding of their significance and, importantly, on ensuring that such buildings are put to uses which will both contribute to the enhancement of the wider area and to their own future support, wherever possible.