UK: Neighbourhood Planning Slow And Becoming Anti Development

Last Updated: 4 October 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on progress with neighbourhood planning, introduced by the Localism Act 2011.

Background

Until the Localism Act 2011 came along, the smallest unit that could have its own planning policies was a district-level local authority.  The Localism Act introduced the concept of 'neighbourhood planning', where an area as small as a parish or town council, or an ad hoc 'neighbourhood area' if there was no parish, could create its own planning policies that were different from (but still in general conformity with the strategy of) the rest of the local planning authority area.

Neighbourhood plans have three main stages - they are published for consultation, examined by an independent examiner, and then if they get past that they are voted upon in a local referendum.  If they pass the referendum, they are adopted by the local planning authority as part of the development plan.

At the time the government thought that neighbourhood planning would be the answer to the removal of regional plans with their housing targets, since if local people were more involved, they would be more amenable to favouring new housing in their areas.  Back in early 2012 I predicted that (a) they wouldn't get taken up as quickly as the government predicted and (b) people would find a way to get them to prevent development rather than encourage it.

How have my predictions fared 18 months later? Quite well, it turns out, not that they were very difficult to make, to be honest.

Progress

The impact assessment accompanying the Localism Bill based its calculations on the assumption that a steady rate of 380 neighbourhood plans would be produced each year.  As we approach the second anniversary of the Act, have 760 neighbourhood plans been adopted?  Not quite, just three have so far.  The stage before that, ones that have passed an examination and are going to referendum, is the same - there are another three at that stage, although to be fair there seem to be quite a few at earlier stages.  Here is the complete list of neighbourhood plans that have passed examination:

Adopted (links to plans)

Passed examination, awaiting referendum (links to examiners' reports)

Why so few?  Just like the Planning Act 2008 regime, new legal regimes generally take a while to get going.  Just like the Planning Act regime, where the first application made was not accepted for examination, the first neighbourhood plan to get as far as an examination fell at that hurdle - the examiner recommended that the Dawlish neighbourhood plan did not proceed to a recommendation.  These setbacks tend not to fill those coming behind with confidence.

Perhaps the two main barriers though, are a lack of appetite for 'planning positively' for an area, and administrative difficulties with shepherding plans through the process by people who are largely volunteers.

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The early plans do contain housing allocations, although one local resident claimed that the Thame plan made the allocations in areas without residents' associations, following consultation with the residents' associations.

The Norland plan is all about preserving the features of its area (Holland Park in London).  It tried to say that if planning permission was granted for something unrelated at a house that was painted in a street of matching unpainted houses, it would be a condition of that permission that the paint was removed.  That didn't get past the examiner, though.

The Lynton and Lynmouth plan prevents housing on the open market being used as second homes.  This was accepted by the examiner as it is used elsewhere in the Exmoor National Park.

The most interesting - and, for the government, worrying - one, however, is the Tattenhall plan, which has a policy in it that developments in or adjacent to the town cannot involve more than 30 dwellings.  It is actually expressed positively 'Proposals involving up to 30 homes will be allowed within or immediately adjacent to the built-up part of Tattenhall village over the period 2010 to 2030', but there was no doubt in the examiner's report that it was a limitation.

The proposed policy was opposed by various housebuilders, but emerged relatively unscathed from the examination nonetheless.  The examiner's report is rather amusing on the housebuilders' arguments about being in conformity with policies that did not yet exist:

A number of housebuilders, with specific reference to lapsed Policy HO1 in the adopted Chester District Local Plan, agreed with one another that Policy 1 did not meet the Basic Conditions because it could not be in general conformity with a policy that doesn't exist. Whilst I have read Sartre, I struggled a little with the existentialist nature of this. However, after contemplation with a cold towel on my head, I am satisfied that not being in general conformity with something that doesn't exist is not a test relevant to this examination.

The examiner concluded: 'Importantly, in my view, no representations demonstrated that housing growth could not be achieved in the way set out in Policy 1.'

The other notable thing about the Tattenhall plan is the method the parish council used to get teenagers to engage with it: they held a rave, with entry on condition that a questionnaire about the plan was filled in.  What a brilliant idea!  63 questionnaires were completed that way.  I can see all sorts of hard to reach groups being involved in a similar way, with events they are interested in free to attend if they participate in the consultation.

Will neighbourhood plans be used to thwart infrastructure development?  They could try to prevent projects that are below the size thresholds in the Planning Act 2008, but those above the thresholds would be unaffected, since they are outside the conventional planning system.  This could also be a reason for a commercial or business project to use the Planning Act regime, once that becomes available, if a pesky neighbourhood plan is calling for the land to have a different use.

One of my main concerns with neighbourhood planning is the 'atomisation' of planning policy - areas with different planning policies will get smaller and proliferate and it will be difficult to keep tabs on it all.  It took some research just to establish that there were six plans past examination, as reported above - imagine what it will be like when there are 760.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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