According to Housing Minister Gavin Barwell the new Neighbourhood Planning Bill will “…help speed up delivery of the further new homes our country needs and ensure our foot is still firmly on the pedal.”
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the opposite is the case. Not only are Neighbourhood Plans tending to inhibit rather than promote development, they also favour well-heeled areas over poorer areas and have, in many cases, pre-empted and by-passed the Local Plan process.
Since their introduction in the Localism Act 2011 almost two thousand Neighbourhood Plans have been put in place across the country and there is no doubt that they have released an untapped enthusiasm for community engagement in the planning process. But a 2014 study by Turley planning consultants found that over half of published plans were designed solely to resist development, and that 73 percent were in areas with Conservative councils, and just 9 percent in Labour areas.
A recent study by ResPublica reinforces these findings. The ten English councils with the highest percentage of deprived neighbourhoods each had five or fewer Neighbourhood Plans, whereas the councils with at least 20 Neighbourhood Plans were in the top half of councils ranked on prosperity. So South Hams, Chichester and Stratford-upon-Avon all have at least 20 Neighbourhood Plans in place or in the pipeline, whereas Burnley, Blackpool and Knowsley have none. It’s no surprise that well-off areas protect their interests (Neighbourhood Plans have been described as a “Nimby Charter”), but this also has the effect of pushing inappropriate development into poorer areas.
Of equal concern, Neighbourhood Plans appear to be pre-empting and by-passing the Local Plan process. In theory, Local Plans should set out the strategy, the housing numbers and the overall shape of development, and Neighbourhood Plans then implement the finer detail. They cannot over-rule the Local Plan. The government’s Planning Practice guidance states:
“Neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan. To facilitate this, 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. Neighbourhood plans should reflect these policies and neighbourhoods should plan positively to support them. Neighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies.”
The problem is that only 31 percent of local authorities have a Local Plan in place that complies with the National Planning Policy Framework. An analysis by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners found that 62 percent of made Neighbourhood Plans were in areas with no up-to-date Local Plan, with local people effectively making decisions about homes and development in a policy vacuum.
In truth, the government has allowed the cart to go in front of the horse and, to use Gavin Barwell’s phrase, pressed the brake pedal instead of the gas pedal. There should have been a clear policy requirement that Neighbourhood Plans would only be permitted in cases where an up-to-date Local Plan was put in place. Apart from anything else, this would have encouraged foot-dragging councils to get their act together.
Local authorites have until early next year to adopt their NPPF-compliant Local Plans. When and if this happens (it’s a very big if) there are likely to be scores of Neighbourhood Plans that fail to comply with the newer Local Plan. I think it is highly unlikely that these communities will simply roll over and accept the higher level plan. Instead there could be a number of almighty planning battles, and in nearly every case they will be fighting against growth and new homes. We all know who the losers will be.The wrong pedal