Whilst working with NDP groups I have been asked about the impact the proposed new planning system may have on Neighbourhood Plans and the ability of local councils and communities to have a say on the future of their areas. Well, so far as my understanding goes, the Bill presents both opportunities and risks for local communities.
Neighbourhood Development Plans. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill [LURB] is intended to ‘drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas’, so it is overtly about locally based action which is of course is what NDPs are all about.
In fact, NDPs could have an enhanced role. As part of the development plan [when adopted], NDPs will have greater weight in decisions: Currently section 38 (6) of The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 says planning applications must be decided ‘in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise’. The LURB replaces this wording and provides that planning application decisions must be made in accordance with the development plan and national development management policies, ‘unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise’.
This is good news for those that are concerned that NDPs are being overridden in too many planning application decisions, but it may also mean that developers will be keener to become involved in the NDP process and to challenge them in the courts.
There may also be pressure from the other direction, as the LURB introduces the concept of generic ’national development management policies’ [NDMPs] which may replace Local Plan policies in part, with Local Plans being limited to focus on ‘locally specific’ issues. It also creates local ’Supplementary Plans’ which have the same weight as Local Plans, for specific sites or groups of sites and local design guidance. So I expect that Local Planning Authorities will begin to reach down further into the local policy space currently occupied by NDPs, which could become a source of friction between Parish/Town Councils and the upper tier councils in their areas.
By the same token there is also be a concern that the NDMPs may include content that effectively neuters the ability for NDPs to respond imaginatively to local conditions.
Back on the positive side the LURB also introduces useful new wording into the planning legislation that provides detail as to what can be included within a neighbourhood plan. These are:
- policies for development in the neighbourhood area, setting out the amount, type and location, and timetable for delivery of that development;
- policies to achieve objectives that relate to the particular characteristics or circumstances of the NDP area and sites within it;
- infrastructure and affordable housing requirements arising from development;
- design requirements that the qualifying body considers should be met for planning permission for a development to be granted;
- policies to ensure that the development and use of land in the neighbourhood area contribute to the mitigation of, and adaption to, climate change.
Notably the reference to a timeframe for the delivery of development may provide the context for phasing policies in NDPs and may also link usefully to proposals in the LURB for new tools to force developers to complete schemes more quickly and tackle developer land-banking.
The Basic Conditions for NDPs remain largely as existing, but with a major exception. It narrows the existing requirement for neighbourhood plans to be in ‘general conformity with the strategic policy of the development plan’ to a new condition which requires that neighbourhood plans must not prevent development from coming forward that is ‘proposed in the development plan’ and ‘would provide more housing’. This means that NDPs can be more creative in their housing policies, so they can provide for more housing than proposed in the local plan if the evidence justifies, and potentially have greater freedom to innovate in other policy areas [albeit still subject to the new NDMPs].
Neigbourhood Priorities Statements. The LURB recognises that the take-up of neighbourhood plans is uneven across the country and is generally low in urban and more deprived areas because they face additional barriers which makes it more difficult for them to progress a neighbourhood plan, such as a lack of an established governance structure or finding volunteers to help prepare the plan. Therefore the Bill It includes proposals for a ‘neighbourhood priorities statement’ [NPS] tool to give communities a simpler and more accessible way to set out priorities and preferences for their local areas. These will have to be considered by local authorities in Local Plan preparation, but it is not clear what weight they will have in actual planning application decisions.
NPSs will at least be an alternative to full NDPs that are useful to smaller rural Parishes that are organisationally weak and where volunteers are scarce, but their real value may be as clear expressions of shared community priorities that local councils and organisations can plan their investment and management actions around. As such they could galvanise localism amongst the more traditional rural Parishes.
Street Votes. The Bill also includes measures to further advance the localism agenda through a ‘Street Votes’ system primarily intended, according to the Bill’s explanatory notes, to ‘allow for intensification of predominantly housing development on existing residential streets where support for that intensification was signalled through a street vote’. Recent amendments provide for new ‘street vote development orders’ [SVDOs] and independent examination of them. They will grant fast track planning permissions in a prescribed street area for ‘development of any description or class’ that it specifies. National Parks, the Broads, World Heritage Sites and their buffer zones, SSSIs, AONBs, statutory Green Belts, designated Local Green Spaces and European habitats sites are excluded from SVDOs.
An SVDO may make provisions for all land in the street area specified in the order, any part of that land, or a site in that area, excluding scheduled Ancient Monuments, Listed Buildings, nationally significant infrastructure projects, minerals sites, and large infrastructure schemes.
The Bill says that regulations will specify that ‘certain requirements’ are met before permission can be granted. These likely may include design matters and [hopefully] conformity with the development plan and the NMDPs. An NDP could perhaps therefore contribute to this process as part of the development plan that street votes would have to be in accordance with. An SVDO could also be seen as an alternative to an NDP, and may be the right choice in particular circumstances [such as a small rural community].
However, overall I don’t think SVDOs will turn out to be an easy or popular process, and may be a direct threat to Local Plans, NDPs and regeneration schemes, because:
- The system will involve difficulties in definition: for example, what makes a ‘street’?
- Strong checks and balances will be needed to avoid abuse: if an SVDO has primacy over Local Plans and/or NDPs will they become a back door way to prevent development or avoid development management policies that are justified from a wider perspective?
- In some areas they could be very divisive: a near 50-50 vote can hardly be seen as community cohesion.
- If particular local residents are clearly seen as the proponents of an Order, opposition to it could become very personal.
- It’s not hard to imagine the community of one street being strongly opposed to an Order proposed for an adjoining street, and as it has no formal say on the matter, resorting to alternative means of blocking the proposal.
- A multiplicity of differing SVDOs in close proximity could lead to a chaotic urban environment and thwart improvement strategies that are coherent at a larger scale, potentially driving away regeneration funding.
Perhaps in areas where there is less diversity or a shared common cause such as a community housing project SVDOs may have a role, but otherwise I think the take-up may be limited.
Conclusions. It seems to me that NDPs will still be a useful tool for communities in future, with an enhanced role as part of a suite of planning based localism measures, but there are obvious concerns that NMDPs could have the effect of driving Local Plans into the policy spaces occupied by NDPs so causing new tensions. They could also reduce local flexibility and innovation.