Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A prediction. Neighbourhood plans are the future

In the fast-paced, high-octane, ever-changing world of town and country planning predicting the future can be a perilous business. The political pendulum will swing again at some point and the only sound prediction about change at national and regional level is that there will be some. I am prepared though to lay a petard upon which I may in future be hoisted by saying that neighbourhood plans (NPs) are not only here to stay, but will become a foundation of the planning system.  

It would be easy to deride DCLG’s description of neighbourhood planning as a ‘growing movement’ as something of an exaggeration, but, as the website states, as of April 2014:
  • around 1,000 communities have taken the first formal steps towards producing a NP; 
  • 80 full draft plans have been produced for consultation; and 
  • 13 neighbourhood plans have been passed at community referendums.
There are over ten thousand parishes in England so thirteen plans passing referenda is quite a small percentage, but neighbourhood planning was only introduced through the Localism Act in 2011 and neighbourhood planning legislation only came into effect in 2012. This is a planning system, remember that, ten years after the Planning & Compensation Act introduced the requirement for Core Strategy, has delivered only 56% local plan coverage. Progress may be slow, therefore, but there is progress and for three reasons I expect that progress to continue.

The first is that localism, as well as its cousins decentralisation and devolution, are very much on the political agenda at present and George Osbourne’s appeal to the north this week and the Scottish Referendum later this year are evidence that they are likely to remain so. Further planning reform at national and regional level after the next general election is as inevitable as an early England departure from a major tournament, but the localism genie is out of the bottle and no administration will want to be seen rowing back from it. An incoming Labour administration may adopt a brand of localism similar to Mr Pickles’ muscular or centralist versions, but localism will be part of the label on the tin.

The second reason for more progress is that NPs are likely to become easier to prepare. Procedurally, it would be easy for any group contemplating a plan to be overwhelmed by the hoops and fences to be navigated, but as more plans are made, and best practice becomes easier to share, more groups may feel emboldened to have a go. More importantly though are the answers that have started to be given to what one examiner described as an existential dilemma: what comes first: the local plan or the NP?

The NPPG makes clear that NPs can be developed before or at the same time as the LPA is producing its local plan. In addition, in determining an appeal in East Staffordshire recently Mr Pickles found that "the adverse impacts of the appeal proposal, especially in terms of the conflict with the Broughton Astley Neighbourhood Plan, would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits in terms of increasing housing supply".

Martin Carter of Kings Chambers, who represented Cheshire West & Chester Council during a challenge against the Tattenhall NP, said of that decision that "the way the judge dismissed the claim makes it clear there’s a reduced burden on people preparing a neighbourhood planning compared to a local plan. It supports the notion that a NP is something capable of being carried out by non-professionals. It’s for local people to be able to arrange simply and successfully."

The third reason for my prediction about the growth of NPs is simply that, as the system is refined and awareness and understanding grows, all parties involved in the planning process will see that the benefits outweigh any perceived costs.

There might be an administrative issue for a LPA when comparing the time and cost of a single site allocations DPD with, say, two dozen, NPs, but would that really be so great? For most LPAs just adopting a full and objectively assessed housing requirement can be a bruising experience, but often the reward for doing so is another political obstacle course in deciding where that requirement should be accommodated. Why not let communities decide that for themselves?

NPs make sense for communities because, as many already have and others may soon realise, housing requirement goalposts will keep changing and development pressures will continue to test the robustness of local plans and five year housing supplies. Communities that realise that development is going to happen anyway will better serve their interests by, for example, getting involved in how development looks and how S106 / CIL money can be spent by them directly rather than having to wrest it back from the LPA.

NPs also offer opportunities to land promoters and house builders because, as anybody who has been to a wet Glastonbury knows, it is better to be inside the tent than outside. Development pressures mean that an individual land promoter or house builders’ interests within or adjoining a settlement is unlikely to be the only option for the growth of that settlement. I would contend that, where there is an opportunity to do so and where all other things are equal, the time and cost of working with a community as part of a NP process to identify why and how a site should come forward would be less than the time of cost of a pursing what might otherwise be a planning appeal and perhaps even a challenge to the neighbourhood plan if one does emerge.

There will, of course, be communities that attempt to stymie rather than support new development; and there will also be the inevitable winds generated from storms at regional and national level that will bend the neighbouring planning process into different shapes; and, whilst they will never be ubiquitous (in a country that cannot even manage 100% local plan coverage that might be an ambition too far), and even allowing for my inherent optimism and faith in the human spirit, for these reasons NPs will become a foundation of the planning system. And you can hold me to that…


  1. You might be interested to read Tony Burton in TheInformationDaily.com on obstacles to greater takeup of neighbourhood planning and how these can be overcome - see http://www.theinformationdaily.com/2014/07/01/neighbourhood-planning-is-up-and-running-now-lets-make-it-fly. Equally you might find useful the Neighbourhood Planner map, which uses 'the crowd' to update information about NPs. The original data for 713 NPAs came from DCLG and nearly 30 have been added by councillors, planners and members of NP groups since it was made public about a month ago. Find it here - http://www.neighbourhoodplanner.co.uk

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