England & Wales Communities and society

Will the Localism Bill deliver a new settlement between people and planning?


(c) Rob Brewer

This article was originally published in the LGiU’s C’llr Magazine which is distributed to all councillors in LGiU member councils.

The government has set out plans in the Localism Bill to revolutionise the planning process by  “taking power away from officials and putting it into the hands of those who know most about their neighbourhood – local people themselves”.

The Bill seeks to deliver on the government’s pledge to ‘radically reform the planning system’. The rationale for this reform is the criticism that the current planning system is out of touch with people’s lives and not fit for purpose in securing lasting progress on key issues, such as the provision of housing and tackling climate change.

The Bill sets out an ambitious, but procedurally complex new neighbourhood planning framework. There are also changes to the Local Development Framework process, the abolition of Regional Strategies, and introduction of a new ‘Duty to Co-operate’. So the overarching question is – will localism deliver a more efficient, fairer and effective planning system vital in securing the long-term wellbeing of our communities?

Collaborative neighbourhood planning, so that more people can be involved in the process of shaping the places in which they live and work, is an opportunity to be grasped. The TCPA has a long track record in promoting community participation and the government’s determination to reconnect the system to the people it serves is to be welcomed. However, is the neighbourhood planning framework set out in the Bill sufficiently inclusive and flexible to meet the needs of all communities?

What the Localism Bill offers is a route for communities that is procedurally complex but ultimately powerful in law. There are questions over access to the neighbourhood planning process for those communities who lack the social and financial capital to navigate the system. Another important outcome of this framework is that neighbourhood planning bodies for rural parished areas and urban areas are starkly different. Parishes are fully constituted lower tier elected councils with clear rules on the disclosure of interests and bound by duties applying to public bodies. They are also democratically accountable. In the absence of a parish council, ‘Neighbourhood Forums’ must have a minimum of three people and pass a series of tests before becoming a qualifying body. It is imperative to the legitimacy of the plan-making process that neighbourhood forums are transparent, representative, inclusive and accountable.

While the concern to ensure that neighbourhood planning has a powerful outcome is a valid aspiration for some communities, the TCPA believes it should not be seen as the only route to empowering people. There should be a debate on how more informal plans and community visions, which might suit the needs of many places, can be properly integrated and respected in the planning process. These less formal expressions of community aspiration provide the flexibility to have differing kinds of ‘conversations’ about development with the diverse sets of communities which exist in many parts of England.

Councillors will have a vital role to play, along with community organisations, in supporting local people in coming together to produce neighbourhood plans and visions. Whereas before many of the tensions in planning played out between the local and regional level, these may now be transferred to the local and community level. Councillors should consider how they can help mediate the relationship between local people’s aspirations and wishes and the wider framework of the local plan.

This is a historic planning reform Bill and although not addressed here, there are equally important questions over how, in the absence of regional planning, strategic cross-border issues such as housing and climate change can be properly considered. The effectiveness and fairness of the new regime depends not just on the extensive forthcoming regulations, but a wider package of changes including the introduction of the New Homes Bonus, designed to incentivise housing growth, and a new National Planning Policy Framework, which will contain the key national policy direction for planning.

The government aim of creating the freedom and the incentives for those places that want to grow to do so, and to reap the benefits, is a valid one. However, the places that are more resistant to growth or have limited access to support for engagement will need local authority leadership more than ever.

Kate Henderson is the chief executive of The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) which campaigns for the reform of the UK’s planning system to make it more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and to promote sustainable development.

LGiU is running a seminar looking at practical ways in which Supporting People programmes can be sustained and developed in the context of deep cuts in local authority budgets and changes in housing. More information and a booking form can be found here