Around one month ago the number of neighbourhood plans taken to referendum reached the milestone of 100. This is a particularly impressive figure given the rather inauspicious and slow start that neighbourhood planning experienced, and as recently as April 2014, only 13 neighbourhood plans had been endorsed at referendum.
The introduction of neighbourhood planning through the Localism Act 2011, brought into effect in April 2012, was seen by the Government as something that would play a key role in returning power from Whitehall back to local people and facilitating communities shaping development in their area. The neighbourhood plan process has previously come under criticism from some developers, due to the perceived lack of rigour in how such plans consider housing need and requirement, and how they are then scrutinised by examiners. There is a genuine fear that localism – in particular the neighbourhood plan process – is being deliberately used to limit development rather than expediting local solutions to meeting sustainable development needs in the local area. A fitting quote comes from Paul Tucker QC, who proclaimed in January 2015 that “whatever the political shade of the next government, it must prevent localism becoming parochialism”.
During early 2015, examples abounded where appeals were rejected by the then Secretary of State with reasoning given that the development would conflict with the neighbourhood plan or that it would prejudice an emerging neighbourhood plan. Evidence of this approach was identified by NLP , demonstrating a distinct reluctance of the Secretary of State to issue appeal decisions that went against the neighbourhood plan, despite in a number of cases, having to go against the inspector’s recommendation.
However, a recent appeal decision by Communities Secretary Greg Clark, to allow 39 homes on the edge of Earls Barton, Northamptonshire on a site not allocated for residential development in the then emerging Neighbourhood Plan, could indicate a shift in approach, as the Government’s response to the housing crisis perhaps supersedes those pre-election jitters.
The timing of this decision is notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that the decision appeared in the press just twelve hours after the resounding ‘yes’ vote in the Earls Barton neighbourhood plan referendum, ensuring that the Plan must be made by the local planning authority.. It was therefore a bold political judgement to go against it, although the decision did state that the Plan was an, “important material consideration”. The appeal was allowed on the grounds that the Council could not demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable housing, and it was subsequently argued that despite the neighbourhood plan being at an advanced stage, the “relevant policies for the supply of housing, including the proposed village development boundary, should not be considered up to date” reflecting the NPPF para 49. The decision was issued just before the recently introduced Housing and Planning Bill began to be debated in Parliament, a piece of draft legislation that boosts Secretary of State intervention powers in neighbourhood plans (for the most part for their benefit) yet that has stoked accusations of being the ‘end of localism’ from Labour opposition. Indeed, even backbench Conservative MPs have expressed their concerns over the Bill, imploring Cabinet Ministers to ‘keep faith in localism’.
Notwithstanding the politics, the Earls Barton decision appears also to be a direct consequence of recent blows that emerging neighbourhood plans were dealt in the High Court, in Woodcock Holdings Limited vs Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (May 2015)). The judgment that too much weight had been given to the emerging neighbourhood plan resulted in the reversing of the decision to refuse a 120 home development, in circumstances where the local authority could not demonstrate a deliverable five year housing supply. A second case in October 2015, Villages Action Group vs Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, also considered that the Inspector was correct to ignore a neighbourhood plan as it was currently still in early stages of preparation and had not been made.
These decisions demonstrate that emerging neighbourhood plans, although obviously important parts of the development planning system, will not necessarily trump national policies set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This situation does not remove the benefits that may nevertheless exist for developers in engaging positively in preparations for neighbourhood plans to secure allocations that help meet the local needs of that community. There are increasing examples of positive joint working to that end.
However, even where there is a neighbourhood plan in place, it is not the end of the story. Many neighbourhood plans proceeded in advance of local plans being adopted for the wider Council area, and they have not always engaged fully with meeting housing and economic development requirements that have been derived from full, objectively assessed needs. Now that local plans have an ‘early 2017’ deadline for publication, it is distinctly possible that conflicts may emerge between local plans seeking to find sustainable development options for meeting housing requirements, and recently made neighbourhood plans. The national Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) confirms the provisions of section 38(5) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, that decisions on planning applications should favour the policies of the most recent development plan document. In these circumstances, newly adopted local Plans in the future may end up superseding even the most recently made neighbourhood plans. What impact will this have on communities’ confidence in the system?
As we move forward towards the New Year, it will be interesting to see whether Government continues to emphasise housing delivery over neighbourhood planning in situations where there are conflicts, thereby reversing the pre-election, Coalition trend. Whatever happens, neighbourhood plans are clearly here to stay: Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis has claimed that neighbourhood planning is boosting housebuilding by 10%. The Government seems convinced that neighbourhood planning can sit happily alongside an increasingly pro-house building Government. That may be so, but it certainly won’t be an easy ride.
This blog is the first in a two-part series by NLP, commenting on neighbourhood planning and culminating in the release of a research project at the end of November.
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