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Neighbourhood planning will give communities the opportunity to organise themselves into forums that can prepare neighbourhood plans and put forward neighbourhood development orders to secure planning permission for developments they support.
There are caveats: plans and development orders must be inspected independently and get a majority vote in a community referendum.
There are current 125 neighbourhood planning ‘frontrunners’ which are testing the principles of the initiative in local communities, with the support of local planning authorities.
The implications for elected members and planning officers are considerable. Local planning authorities (LPAs) will be required to assist communities to prepare their neighbourhood plans and development orders. However, it is up to communities whether or not they do this, and so it will be difficult for LPAs to plan what the resource implications of this new role will be.
While needing to conform to local planning policies, neighbourhood plans will be able to ‘promote more development than is set out in the strategic policies of the local plan’. This may create tensions for councillors between their role as elected members and the requirement that LPAs support communities to develop plans that may potentially trump the aspirations of the local plan.
What is neighbourhood planning?
The coalition government says that neighbourhood planning is central to its ‘decentralisation, localism and Big Society agenda’.
The Localism Bill sets out what neighbourhood planning is, and how it should work in practice. Through neighbourhood planning, the government says that communities will be able to:
- choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built
- have their say on what those new buildings should look like
- grant planning permission for the new buildings they want to see go ahead.
Neighbourhood planning is not compulsory for local areas; communities volunteer to get involved. There are five stages to the neighbourhood planning process, as set out in the Communities and Local Government guide called An Introduction to Neighbourhood Planning, published on 13 October 2011.
1 Define the neighbourhood
For places with a parish or town council, this will be the lead body. For places without a parish or town council, a local organisation can put itself forward to be the representative body, or people in a local area may decide to create a new organisation. The local planning authority decides whether the group is sufficiently representative (using some tests such as the organisation has a minimum of 21 members and that it is open to new members) – if so, it will be able to call itself the neighbourhood forum.
The parish council/forum decides on the area it wishes to plan for, and applies to the LPA to have this recognised. No overlap is allowed between areas (that is, no one street or area can be in the jurisdiction of two or more neighbourhood planning forums or councils).
2 Prepare the plan
There are three options available for a neighbourhood forum/parish council. They can prepare.
- a neighbourhood plan: this sets out what development is wanted where
- a neighbourhood development order: this allows the council/forum to grant planning permission for a particular development
- both a plan and development order.
Neighbourhood plans and development orders must:
- generally be in line with local and national planning policies (such as the National Planning Policy Framework)
- conform with other laws
- not be used to block development that the LPA has said is needed.
This last point is obviously an important one for elected members and planning officers to consider – in theory, an up-to-date local plan should not be undermined by a neighbourhood plan that wants to oppose designated growth.
3 Get it checked independently
Neighbourhood plans and development orders will be scrutinised by an independent examiner to make sure that they conform with national and local policies, and that they are compatible with relevant EU obligations and human rights law.
How this is done is up to LPAs: the draft regulations state that ‘local planning authorities have experience of organising independent examinations for local plans and are best placed to decide how to undertake this activity’.
4 Hold a community referendum
An important safeguard in the process is a community referendum, organised by the local authority, on the neighbourhood plan or development order. The plan or order must receive more than 50 per cent support for it to be passed.
5 Adopt the plan or development order
If the plan or development order is passed by the community referendum, then the LPA is obliged to bring it into force. This means it carries legal weight.
Neighbourhood plans – extra points to note for LPAs
Because neighbourhood plans need to conform with local and national plans and policies, LPAs need to make clear what their strategic policies are for a local area. Neighbourhoods will have the power to ‘promote more development than is set out in the strategic policies of the local plan’.
Note that if the policies between a neighbourhood plan (which is in force, that is, it has passed an independent examination and community referendum) and a local plan for that area are in conflict, the neighbourhood plan will ‘take precedence’.
Neighbourhood planning frontrunners
The government has made £5 million available to 2015 to help communities develop neighbourhood plans and development orders. These funds are being distributed through four organisations:
- Campaign to Protect Rural England (Planning Help)
- Royal Town Planning Institute (Planning Aid).
So far, the government has announced four waves of ‘frontrunners’ to test the principles of neighbourhood planning. Each of the 126 frontrunner communities has received £20,000 – applications for the fifth wave are open until 4 November 2011.
Community infrastructure levy – neighbourhood funds
A related initiative is the proposed neighbourhood funds to be set up as part of the community infrastructure levy (CIL), which the government is currently consulting on as part of its reforms to the CIL.
The purpose of neighbourhood funds would be to allocate a meaningful proportion of the revenue generated from the CIL to local communities to decide how it should be spent. The government is currently consulting on what a ‘meaningful proportion’ should be.
The government argues that the community development funds will ‘strengthen the role and financial autonomy of neighbourhoods [and] give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of their area and to help communities accommodate the impact of new development.’
The consultation proposes that the charging authority will make the money available to parish councils in England (and community councils in Wales). If no parish council exists then the charging authority should engage with the local community to determine the best way of spending the money.
Examples of how neighbourhoods might want to spend the cash include parks and playgrounds. However, neighbourhood funds could not be used to correct a historic lack of provision (unless the new development will exacerbate this).
More control for communities, or less?
The neighbourhood planning proposals, if enacted via the Localism Bill, would create a new tier of plan. The government believes that local people would have the opportunity to have more involvement in shaping the place where they live, especially through proposing neighbourhood development orders.
There is broad agreement that communities should be more involved in the local planning process. However, while supporting the principle, some organisations are concerned that in practice this is not what will be achieved.
For example, Civic Voice believes that the government’s enthusiasm for ‘putting communities in control’ will be undermined by the national planning policy framework (NPPF), which it says is ‘weak in valuing the community view at the very earliest stages of preparing plans and drawing up development proposals’.
The purpose of the frontrunners is to begin to test the principles and processes in practice. However, no progress or learning has yet been published.
Towards a patchwork quilt of plans?
The language of neighbourhood planning and the associated regulations is very ‘can do’: the government speaks of ‘putting citizens in the driving seat of planning’ and communities being able to ‘shape their own vision for the future as they see fit’.
In practice there are a number of steps and safeguards – namely an independent examination and the community referendum. These mean that parish councils, town councils and neighbourhood forums will need to apply a degree of doggedness and determination to successfully steer their way through the whole process and end up with a completed plan or approved development order.
This suggests that communities with existing capacity, time and resources will be much better placed than those without these assets. Likewise, cohesive communities will have more chance of making progress than ones that are more divided over what their future should look like.
One outcome could be that there will be a patchwork quilt of plans, where areas with neighbourhood plans are interspersed by neighbouring communities that don’t. What will be the implications of an uneven spread of neighbourhood plans for communities that sit side-by-side? And how easy will it be to demarcate different community areas given that no one area can reside in more than neighbourhood plan?
Implications for local authority staff and elected members
A previous LGIU briefing on national planning reforms (May 2011) noted the tension that exists between some of the objectives of localism and the role and responsibilities of elected members.
This tension is most evident in the neighbourhood planning initiative. For example, while needing to conform to local planning policies, neighbourhood plans will be able to ‘promote more development than is set out in the strategic policies of the local plan’. This may create tensions for councillors between their role as elected members and the requirement that LPAs support communities to develop plans that may potentially trump the aspirations of the local plan.
But there will also be opportunities. In some areas, as described above, some communities may be well placed to take advantage of the new powers. In these areas elected members may find that neighbourhood planning provides a new and meaningful way to engage with their constituency.
Neighbourhood planning also raises financial uncertainties. LPAs have a legal obligation to assist parish/town councils and neighbourhood forums to prepare plans, with resource implications that will be difficult to quantify until it is clear how many areas wish to take advantage of the new neighbourhood planning initiatives.
One authority has announced that it is restructuring its planning department to set up a neighbourhoods planning team. According to Planning Magazine [paywall] the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is setting up the neighbourhoods team partly for budget saving reasons, but also because of the government’s ‘agenda for neighbourhood planning’. Interestingly, the council’s director of planning and conservation acknowledges that the team ‘will not necessarily be working on lots of neighbourhood plans because it is up to the community to bring proposals forward.’
Another consideration is that the skills required to support neighbourhood planning may not exist within some planning departments. The money and expertise required to ensure that planning teams can support communities to develop plans and development orders, or that independent organisations are paid to do so, may be difficult to find as LPAs continue to operate within tighter budgets.
Third sector organisations may be in a position to help, and some have already produced resources targeted at local communities, such as the TCPA’s community guide to planning called Your Place, Your Plan.
The coalition government has published a consultation on neighbourhood planning regulations, which poses a series of questions about some of the practical aspects of how neighbourhood planning will be regulated.
The deadline for responses is 5 January 2012.
It has also published a consultation on revisions to the community infrastructure levy (CIL), which includes a section on neighbourhood funds.
The consultation closes on 30 December 2011.
Both consultations are relevant for elected members, senior officers and planning teams at all tiers.
The government has also announced a fifth wave of ‘frontrunners’ to test neighbourhood planning in practice. Applications close on 4 November 2011.