Monday, 4 August 2014

Localism may be waning, but the neighbourhood planning star is on the rise

The title of this piece in The Guardian by Hannah Fearn poses the following question. 'Is localism preventing the development of new homes?'

The piece goes on to ask a follow-up question in the introduction. 'After just three years, is neighbourhood planning already dead?'

A point of pedanty perhaps, and though the two concepts are related, cousins almost, the two are different and their future fortunes are likely to be equally so.

Localism is the nebulous political concept that found favour within the Conservative Party in preparation for the 2010 general election (the Big Society anyone?). It made it's planning debut in the Tories 'Open Source Planning' green paper, back in the days when the answer to the challenge of a 'broken' planning system was to reject the Government’s 'centralising, corporatist attitude' in favour of local people being able to 'specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area.' Localism was Steve Hilton's wonkish genie that George Osborne's economic pragmatism demanded be put back into the bottle (note here this blog about the same trap that the Labour party is likely to wander in to). 

The Localism Act, which received royal assent in November 2011, provided the legislative rigour for some of the ideas conceived in opposition by the Tories. Some of these, the Community Right to Build for example, have not, it is fair to say, demonstrated that the public's enthusiasm for localism matched that of Whitehall wonks.

Neighbourhood planning though is, I would contend, a qualified success. In addition to the points made in this earlier blog, there have been a couple of other interesting developments recently that suggests that it's star is on the rise.

Firstly, a current consultation on streamlining the planning system further proposes the introduction of time limits within which LPAs must take decisions on certain applications for a neighbourhood area to be designated. The government has estimated that on average councils are currently taking 126 days to designate neighbourhood areas, with timescales varying from 45 days to 400 days. The proposal would involve a 10 week (70 day) time limit.

Secondly, the government plans to recover more planning appeals in neighbourhood planning areas. Outgoing planning minister Nick Boles said that Eric Pickles is keen to 'give particular scrutiny to planning appeals in, or close to, neighbourhood plan areas to enable him to consider the extent to which the government's intentions are being achieved on the ground.'

This, admittedly, is quite dry stuff, but what it means is that the government would like neighbourhood planning areas to be designated more quickly and more account to be taken of neighbourhood plans during the preparation process. This has been demonstrated by this recovered appeal decision in West Sussex, where the Secretary of State has taken a contrary view to an inspector and afforded 'significant weight' to a neighbourhood plan that had been submitted for examination, but not examined or been subject to a referendum.

Is localism preventing the development of new homes? Yes. With hindsight I'm sure the Tories would sooner have said that local people could 'specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area provided that is was consistent with an up-to-date local plan and that a five year supply of deliverable housing land was in place.'

Is neighbourhood planning already dead? No. 
This image, tweeted by DCLG recently, illustrates that, whilst we will hear less of localism from the Conservatives this time around, the commitment to neighbourhood planning remains.

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