The Localism Bill continues to make its way through Parliament, hoping to bring clarity and certainty to a planning system currently seen as anything but. The concept of localism brings with it an idealism that the public, which of course in localism-speak is not the public but 'the community', will wish to drive forward planning in their area. One of the key policy goals of the Bill is to give communities more power to become involved in local development, with the hope that they then will agree to more. One of the ways in which this is done is by the Neighbourhood Plan.
Neighbourhood Plans are intended to become the foundations of the planning system 'where communities have the power to grant planning permission if a local majority are in favour’. There are two elements to a Neighbourhood Plan: policy and development, each of which must be within the context of the local planning authority's development plan and national planning strategies. Communities will be able to develop a plan which, if it succeeds both at an independent examination and at a public referendum, can be adopted through a Neighbourhood Development Order that gives it statutory basis within the local development plan documents.
Who can instigate a Neighbourhood Plan?
In areas that have a parish or town council, it is they who will instigate the Neighbourhood Plan, and identify the geographical area to be considered. However, in an area that is not a parish, a suitably qualified group from the community applies to become a 'neighbourhood forum' covering a specific 'neighbourhood area'. Recent amendments to the Localism Bill have increased the minimum membership from three to 21 individuals living, working or elected as council members in the area in question, which seems to be a more representative and balanced approach.
A community group can be a self-appointed group whose aims cover the social, environmental and economic well-being of residents and where membership is open to all residents in the area concerned or, more recently, a business which may promote its trade or profession. The local authority has first to approve these designations and the approval of a neighbourhood forum prevents any other group being similarly designated for five years. It is the Government's ambition that each local authority's area will eventually be covered by contiguous neighbourhood plans, none of which overlap each other. It remains to be seen what would happen if groups compete for the same area or if a particular area is unloved enough not to have one at all.
Neighbourhood Development Orders
It is not, however, a quick and simple process, as with most things frontloaded in this way. If the proposals determining the number, location and design of new housing, shops or schools are in accordance with local and national policy, approved by an independent examiner, accepted by the local authority and then, through a referendum, achieve support with more than half of the votes of the local community, the local authority will make a Neighbourhood Development Order. The local authority may refuse to hold a local referendum if there is already a process available for consultation, appeal or review, however, allowing much wider scope for the local authority to refuse to hold one. This recent amendment to the Bill would certainly save costs, although it remains to be seen how this less prescriptive method of 'community approval' would work in practice in order to be safe from judicial review.
If an Order is passed, any proposed development that is consistent with the Order does not need to apply for full planning permission, though the Order itself defines who can be given permission and what conditions might be applied. It is certainly not a carte blanche for pressure groups, local businesses or developers to get what they want when they want it and as such may not streamline the planning system, especially if, as is intended, those who are writing these plans are not familiar with the legal, policy and technical requirements of producing documents such as development plans. Despite them being written by the local community, surely they must be done so in such a way that supplies evidence and reasoning for the proposals. It would be unsurprising if, in a way similar to housing numbers, the existing development plans are used as templates due to lack of resources for fresh evidence gathering. This may be where the ability to involve local businesses can have a positive impact.
As has been acknowledged for a long time, there is a knee jerk reaction to new development at a local level. The zeitgeist at a local level within green leafy towns and villages where new and reasonably priced housing is required the most has always been countryside good, development bad. The Government's 'bottom up', or de-centralised approach attempts to tackle this issue from a different angle. The reasoning behind localism is to provide communities with a way of influencing development they will benefit, or not, from, and by doing so, they will be more accepting of the need for new development and change to meet the needs of their community.
This is the Trojan horse of planning; a way of tackling NIMBYism from the inside. The bonus for planning authorities is, of course, that by passing responsibility for neighbourhood planning to the neighbourhood, there is less cost and other resource implications, as well as responsibility for unpopular decisions which may affect the re-election of planning committee members. The government also hopes that these neighbourhood groups will be innovative in ways that other bodies have been unable to be. It believes that localism will 'enable communities to find their own ways of overcoming the tensions between development and conservation, environmental quality and pressure on services'.
Local decisons within local, regional and national constraints
It should be noted that any original and ingenious community thinking will be within the constraints of national policy and local plans as noted above. They will also have to be aligned with neighbouring neighbourhood plans, which may test the spirit of co-operation between groups with differing agendas. There will also be no 'innovative' reduction in housing numbers as the neighbourhood plan will only be able to require a new development that is greater than or equal to the targets set in the adopted development plan, which in themselves are likely to have been reduced from those set in the Regional Spatial Strategy.
This in itself leads nicely on to the acknowledged problem of the multitude of local authorities who do not actually have adopted plans. It is becoming clear that without a robust local plan there will be no context for neighbourhood planning. Local authorities will risk losing local decision making to the national presumption in favour of sustainable development as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.
Despite the requirement to produce a core strategy having been set out since 2004, only roughly half of England has a development plan, robust or not and the Government is losing patience. It seems that an outdated plan is of little worth in a system in which the presumption of sustainable development means that it will be difficult to refuse permission unless there is a very good local reason for doing so. Control may be wrested back from local level if there is nothing to counterbalance it as this new type of plan simply cannot be seen in the same light as the slow and painful adoption of core strategies. However, it will certainly be difficult for a Neighbourhood Plan to be in accordance with housing numbers in the development plan if the latter does not exist.
It would seem, however, that interest in and take up of neighbourhood planning has been better than expected so far, and perhaps by more than just the 'usual suspects' within the community. It may be that people have seen the benefit of adapting to change rather than resisting it, if they feel that they are in control and that their ideas are taken seriously and put into practice. The local authorities, whilst perhaps being resigned to more change (or even 'chaotic and botched reforms' as Caroline Flint the shadow housing minister put it), may be glad that the burden of controversial, time intensive and protracted decision making may be taken somewhat from their shoulders.
Clear concepts or cumbersome complexity?
However, in times of cutbacks and streamlining, the Neighbourhood Plan also neatly adds a layer of complexity to a system that is already perceived by the government, communities and professional users as 'cumbersome', confusing and beset by delay. Those members of the community who are excited by the new concept and wish to become involved where they have not been before may soon become weary of the amount of work they will have to undertake for no recompense. Of course, for those areas with a parish council, it is likely that the same people will be 'representative of the community' at both neighbourhood forums and council committees.
It is somewhat optimistic to consider that, despite neighbourhood planning being required to be in accordance with adopted policy, this will be able to address the housing shortfall and be able to circumvent the middle England presumption in favour of the status quo, which they will of course now be more in control of than ever. There will however be a potential tension between neighbourhood planning and the scale of development required to provide housing and services for future generations of all strata of society.