Following on from last week’s news that government funding could go straight to local communities to help them produce neighbourhood plans, today’s Planning Blog has an interesting contribution from Michael Donnelly (Planning’s senior online editor) who was actually present at the conference. It always helps to know what someone who heard things first hand (first ear?) thought, so here’s Michael’s blog in full:
“Neighbourhood planning: power to the people?
How much real power do the Government’s proposed neighbourhood planning reforms put into the hands of local communities? The reforms, which will take effect in April if the Localism Bill stays on schedule, give town or parish councils (or, in places where these don’t exist, local authority-endorsed community groups) the opportunity to create plans with statutory weight. They also empower the groups to allow certain kinds of development without planning permission.
But neighbourhood plans cannot provide for less development than is laid out in the local authority’s development plan, which has prompted some critics to dismiss them as toothless. The Government describes them as tools for shaping development rather than determining levels of development. In Whitehall’s vision, neighbourhoods will use their new powers to shape the design and location of development.
How influential will those powers be? Being able to dictate the location of development might seem to offer nimby communities an alternative route to blocking schemes that they don’t like, as it would appear possible for them to reject a site that has already been allocated in the local plan on the grounds that they can offer a similar plot of identical capacity elsewhere in the neighbourhood. You could imagine schemes that are ready to go on site being effectively halted by opponents proposing a series of alternatives.
My understanding is that government is pretty sanguine about this threat, arguing that neighbourhood planners would have to demonstrate that their alternative site was just as viable and capable of meeting local plan objectives as the existing allocated site before any switch was agreed, and that this will be hard to do. I suspect, from the evidence of our interviews with neighbourhood planning groups in the current issue, that some may have a go anyway. But if the government is right, and it usually proves difficult for neighbourhood planners to alter site allocations, then one wonders how much real power over the location of development that they have?
Anyway, yesterday, Gareth Bradford, the Department of Communities & Local Government official leading on neighbourhood planning, told an Action for Market Towns conference not to underestimate the power that neighbourhood planning offers local communities. His key points were:
- Neighbourhood plans do not need to conform with every aspect of a local plan. The key thing, he said, was that neighbourhood plans should be “in general conformity” with the strategic policies in the local plan. Some of the big debates amongst the local groups in 126 English council neighbourhood planning “frontrunner areas” have been about how far they can push this flexibility, he said.
- Local authorities will find it difficult to obstruct neighbourhood groups that are determined to produce plans. One delegate had raised concerns that councils that saw neighbourhood plans as a threat might be able to stymie them by refusing to give the necessary blessing to the creation of plan-making neighbourhood forums. But Bradford said that the eligibility criteria for neighbourhood forums were specific and limited, and to turn down an application local authorities would need to clearly be able to demonstrate that the criteria had not been met.
- Producing a neighbourhood plan may be more affordable than you think. Responding to a question about how local groups could afford the data and technical advice needed to support plan-making, he warned against overdoing evidence gathering. “Inspectors continue to tell us that they receive much more evidence than they need,” he said. Be proportionate, he advised, and produce evidence only in the areas that you really need to focus on. He reminded the audience that all neighbourhood plans would be examined by written representation, so there would not be the additional costs that might be required if a plan was to go in front of an inquiry. Additionally, as we reported yesterday, he said that ministers were considering funding some communities directly to produce neighbourhood plans (at the moment, the funding goes to councils to cover their own costs). My understanding is that ministers are particularly looking at providing such funding to deprived communities.
- Neighbourhood plans do not need to be confined to a single neighbourhood. He said one frontrunner was bringing together 16 parishes, another 11, and that another was planning with boundaries that included a parish but also a wider surrounding area in which there were no parish or town councils. Responding to a question from a delegate concerned about whether the two local authorities affected by her multi-parish neighbourhood plan would work together on it when they had no history of doing so in other matters, he suggested that she make a case for cross-boundary working in her response to the consultation on neighbourhood planning regulations.
- Neighbourhoods could get a sizable share of developer contributions. Bradford said that he knew that some local authorities were “thinking about passing quite a significant proportion” of Community Infrastructure Levy money down to neighbourhood level.
Bradford was an effective advocate for neighbourhood planning, and I’m sure will have persuaded many of those in the hall that the process would justify their time and effort. None of us will know, however, how much it has empowered communities until the first neighbourhood plans are enshrined in statute”.