NEIGHBOURHOOD planning will not be for every community but the rewards could be significant, says Brian Wilson.
It could be said that we are seeing a revolution in the planning system. Central Government guidance has been re-written and simplified as the National Planning Policy Framework. The Localism Act 2011 has introduced neighbourhood planning giving communities new powers to influence the future of their area. It has done this with three measures.
First, Neighbourhood Plans (sometimes called Neighbourhood Development Plans) which will set out policies used to determine planning decisions in a local area. Second, Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDO) which are site-specific and give automatic planning permission for proposals that meet its conditions. They could be useful for actioning policies in Neighbourhood Plans.
Both these measures must be led by a Parish or Town Council where one exists. Elsewhere a Neighbourhood Forum must be created and recognised as the lead body in that area by the local planning authority.
The third new measure is the Community Right to Build Order – essentially the same as a NDO, except that it can be developed by any other community organisation meeting certain criteria.
In truth we'll only know how revolutionary these are some years hence. It is true that rural areas, in particular, already have a proud history developing Village Design Statements, Parish Plans, Market Town Action Plans and Community-Led Plans. Indeed, it is estimated between 4,000 and 5,000 local communities have some experience of them.
However, what is distinctly new is that Neighbourhood Plans will be statutory documents and be part of local planning authorities' Development Plans. So they should have more bite.
It would appear there has been no shortage of local councils and communities seeking to be Neighbourhood Planning Frontrunners. The Government has designated over 200 of them and a look down their list shows many in rural locations.
A survey for the Rural Services Network in late 2011 found considerable interest in neighbourhood planning among the local councils and community groups within its membership. Some 71% thought the proposals at that stage looked either very or fairly useful.
The likely cost and effort required, however, were viewed as key concerns by many. Each Frontrunner is fortunate to receive £20,000 of central Government grant (although that grant actually goes to the local planning authority in the first instance). Quite a bit of the support and advice Government has funded from Planning Aid, Locality, Prince's Trust for the Built Environment and (jointly) CPRE with NALC has also been targeted at them.
Local planning authorities must offer their communities support and it is they who must progress certain stages of the neighbourhood planning process – most obviously the examination and referendum – but quite how much resource they will find to do so is debatable in the current funding climate.
Embarking on neighbourhood planning is a significant commitment for a typical parish council, with a small budget, a part-time clerk and relying on the goodwill of volunteer Councillors. Done properly and in accordance with statutory regulations – as it must be – communities may find it takes them two years or so from start to an adopted Neighbourhood Plan.
The rewards, though, could be significant. Neighbourhood planning is not a free hand; it must be "in general conformity with strategic policies" in the Local Plan and, as such, cannot prevent development already in a Local Plan. But it can range widely, covering housing development location, the mix of housing, new business premises, design and landscaping issues, the protection of valued green space, allotments and heritage sites, sites for community buildings or services, cycleways, sites for community energy schemes and so on.
Those considering neighbourhood planning will want to be sure it is the right measure for them. Where they have local issues falling largely outside the realm of the planning system they are likely to be better off with a Community-Led Plan (CLP). There is nothing to stop them doing the two in parallel – identifying issues through community-led planning, then tackling those which are planning related in a Neighbourhood Plan.
Those whose concerns are limited to design issues may still prefer a simpler route to producing a Village Design Statement, especially if their local planning authority will accept it as supplementary planning guidance.
Others again may wish to focus their firepower on influencing what their local planning authority's Local Plan says about their area, especially if that Local Plan is just being drafted.
Whatever local communities make of neighbourhood planning and whichever route best meets their needs, the advent of neighbourhood planning has brought new possibilities and could lead to a more sophisticated engagement between communities and local planning authorities. That would be useful.
Parish and town councils or communities seeking guidance on preparing a Neighbourhood Plan might wish to look at the publication from CPRE and NALC. Those looking specifically for information about the Community Right to Build might read the note produced by Locality.