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Neighbourhood Planning – First things first?
NLP’s recently published TRIP – Neighbourhood Plans: In theory, In Practice, In The Future – has received significant public interest since its launch earlier this Summer, appearing in articles in professional journals such as The Planner and Planning Resource. NLP’s research and recommendations have also received political attention, featuring in a House of Commons Briefing Paper on neighbourhood planning.As a follow up to this research, I have looked further into the relationship between Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans.Once ‘made’, a Neighbourhood Plan is part of the Development Plan and forms a key part of the decision-taking process. Whilst Neighbourhood Plans represent a significant tool for local communities to shape development, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is clear in stating: Neighbourhood Plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan’ (paragraph 184).As set out in NLP’s research, it is clear that the intention of the NPPF was for Neighbourhood Plans to follow the strategic aims of post-NPPF adopted Local Plans. Accordingly, NPPF paragraph 184 also states that: To facilitate [the preparation of Neighbourhood Plans], local planning authorities should set out clearly their strategic policies for the area and ensure that an up-to-date Local Plan is in place as quickly as possible... (my emphasis)   Despite the best intentions, and as analysed further in NLP’s Early Adopters and the Late Majority (April 2016), only 31% of local planning authorities (LPAs) have an NPPF-compliant and up-to-date Local Plan.   As such, the slow rate at which Local Plans are being adopted has resulted in a scenario where Neighbourhood Plans are coming forward ahead of the Local Plan – or ‘bypassing’ the Local Plan. This can result in policies and housing allocations coming into force which are not subject to the same preparatory requirements as those in a Local Plan. NLP analysis shows that 62% of ‘made’ Neighbourhood Plans form part of a Development Plan alongside an out-of-date Local Plan. A further c.960 designated Neighbourhood Plan Areas are located within local authorities which do not have an up-to-date Local Plan.Whilst it is acknowledged that the Government is setting a deadline of ‘early 2017’ for LPAs to prepare a Local Plan, the pipeline of emerging Neighbourhood Plans (as shown on the map below), together with the less rigorous path to becoming part of the Development Plan, suggests that the ‘bypass’ trend will continue. Even though many emerging Local Plans across the country are at an advanced stage in their preparation, Neighbourhood Plans are not necessarily adhering to their draft strategic policies.To provide clarity on this position, the national Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) states that Neighbourhood Plans can be brought forward before the Local Plan. In such instances, the PPG advises that a Neighbourhood Plan should then follow the strategic policies of the Development Plan in force. However, in many cases, this comprises a Local Plan which can be a decade old, clearly out-of-date and not entirely consistent with the NPPF. In this event, the requirement for Neighbourhood Plans to have regard to emerging Local Plans is less clear.The PPG does, however, advise that the evidence base behind an emerging Local Plan (such as the objectively assessed housing need and the housing requirement) is likely to be relevant to the consideration of whether a Neighbourhood Plan meets basic conditions.Where possible, having regard to the emerging Local Plan evidence base should be in the interest of the Neighbourhood Plan-making body. If a Local Plan were to be adopted after a Neighbourhood Plan, and they contain conflicting policies, in accordance with Section 38(5) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the decision-maker must favour the more recent policy. This could lead to Neighbourhood Plans becoming out-of-date, following the adoption of the Local Plan.In most instances, Neighbourhood Plans are consistent with emerging Local Plan strategic policies and this is often due to the positive cooperation between the Neighbourhood Plan-making body and the LPA. However, where this evidence base is yet to be progressed, and a Neighbourhood Plan has established a housing requirement, it begs the question as to whether an LPA would develop a Local Plan with conflicting policies. This is an important scenario to consider, to ensure that Neighbourhood Plans do not prejudice the preparation of the Local Plan.With this in mind, it highlights the importance of effective engagement between the LPA and Neighbourhood Plan-making body during preparation, to ensure that the Local Plan and Neighbourhood Plan will operate effectively together, with both being part of the Development Plan. In particular, the LPA has a key role to play, in resolving any conflicts between a Neighbourhood Plan and emerging Local Plan.As recommended in NLP’s Neighbourhood Plan research, it is also important for landowners, developers and other interested parties to engage with the Neighbourhood Plan-making process in the same way as with the Local Plan process.What is clear is that neighbourhood planning is here to stay, featuring prominently in the Queen’s Speech with the announcement of a new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill to support neighbourhood plan-making. Following the recent ministerial changes, NLP will also be closely monitoring the implications for neighbourhood planning.In response to the issues with Local Plan-making, the Local Plans Expert Group (LPEG) has identified a series of recommendations that would help speed up the process to adoption.  At para S32, the LPEG report also states that:“If these recommendations are accepted, we further recommend that Regulations should be introduced to require local plans to be complete within two years from first engagement to final submission.”This represents a further measure to address the ‘bypass’ trend and assist in creating an appropriate structure to guide the preparation of Neighbourhood Plans.Whilst I consider that things have not quite panned out as intended, it is essential that all interested parties engage in order to achieve the best end result and a consistent Development Plan providing clarity and certainty for local communities, landowners and developers alike.  

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