Five Problems With Neighbourhood Plans

The real effects of neighbourhood plan making on housing delivery and on the efficient, democratic operation of the planning system are hard to pin down and yet the Government continues to champion its role. Are we really heading in the right direction? After all, despite the positivity of government sponsored initiatives such as mycommunity.org.uk  it isn’t all sweetness and light. Here is my personal worry list:
1. Neighbourhood Plans are usurping the role of local plans, whilst being subject to a lighter-touch examination process
The Court of Appeal, in R (DLA Delivery Ltd) v Lewes District Council  (10 February 2017), has now confirmed that a neighbourhood plan may be made without there being an up to date local plan. Until such time as the local plan comes forward, as the only up to date development plan, the neighbourhood plan’s policies will benefit from the statutory presumption in section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and from paragraph 198 of the NPPF: “[where] a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted”.
This gives neighbourhood plans a role which was surely not foreseen by Parliament. Neighbourhood plans are intended to be in general conformity with the local plan’s strategic policies. But instead any policy vacuum can be filled by the neighbourhood plan’s own strategic policies. Whilst the Planning Practice Guidance urges collaborative working between neighbourhoods and local planning authorities, this does not prevent problems from arising which are exacerbated by two further factors:
–  in order to survive the ‘relatively limited‘ (Court of Appeal in DLA Delivery, para 5) examination process, neighbourhood plans only have to satisfy the ‘basic conditions’ set out in the paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as applied to neighbourhood plans by section 38A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, rather than the wider and more rigorous soundness test applicable to local plans. 
–  the Neighbourhood Planning Bill proposes to accelerate the process, by deeming post-examination pre-referendum neighbourhood plans to be a material consideration in the determination of planning applications (clause 1) and by deeming post-referendum neighbourhood plans to be treated as part of the statutory development plan ahead of formally being made by the district or borough council (clause 2). It will be easier for the Secretary of State to dismiss appeals on the basis of inconsistency with emerging neighbourhood plans (a sensitive subject for DCLG given for example Holgate J’s quashing in Woodcock Holdings Limited v Secretary of State, 1 May 2015 and a series of examples of the Secretary of State having consented to judgment in similar circumstances). 
2. The Neighbourhood Plan process is “complex and burdensome”
Not my words but a description given by participants, according to recent research by the University of Reading: Neighbourhood Planning Users Research Revisited.  
Any community embarking on a neighbourhood plan has to be ready for the long haul. Because policies within the plan can have real consequences for communities and developers alike, it is no surprise that the process can be litigious. 
R (Crownhall Estates Limited) v Chichester District Council  (Holgate J, 21 January 2016) was the third (third!) judicial review in relation to the Loxwood Neighbourhood Plan, with the claimant developer seeking unsuccessfully to challenge the plan’s provision for only 60 homes against a background of a failure of the district council to meet its obejectively assessed housing needs. 

I do not believe that there is a transcript of Dove J’s rejection in Swan Quay LLP v Swale Borough Council on 31 January 2017 of a challenge to the Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan which contained a policy preventing redevelopment of the claimant’s property on the basis that it would lead to ‘gentrification’. The ruling is summarised by the Faversham Creek Trust in a press release.  
Challenges commonly focus on whether there has been compliance with the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, another unsuccessful ground of challenge in DLA Delivery. R (Stonegate Homes Limited) v Horsham District Council (the late, missed, Patterson J, 13 October 2016) was an example of a successful challenge on this basis. The Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan is another, where Aylesbury Vale District Council consented to judgment.
3. Neighbourhood Plans dissipate the local planning authority’s resources

Parish councils such as Haddenham are unlikely to have the resources to resist a legal challenge, leaving the responsibility to the local planning authority which, under the legislation, formally “makes” the plan. How much say will they have over the way in which the defence case is brought and, as importantly, why should the local planning authority’s resources be stretched in this way?

We also have of course dissipation of CIL proceeds, with 15% of CIL proceeds available to be spent by parish councils, increased to 25% where a neighbourhood plan is in place – proceeds that would otherwise have applied towards infrastructure projects required to deliver development. 
4. Neighbourhood Plans are unnecessary and marginalise the role of the local planning authority

District and borough councils are designed to operate down to ward level. We elect ward councillors to represent our local interests – that is to say, the things we care about in relation to our home environment, our neighbourhood. Local plans can and do include policies at neighbourhood level. Additionally, there is scope for area action plans to provide more detailed site-specific policies where justified. 

We should all engage more with local plan making. Does the distraction of neighbourhood planning fuel the inaccurate sense that what happens at district or borough level is remote and not to do with us? What if the energy that one sometimes sees expended on neighbourhood planning were to be properly harnessed at local planning authority level, with proper access to officers and with consistency of plan making over a strategically sensible area?
5. Neighbourhood Plans are not fit for the further roles that Government continues to give them
Neighbourhood planning is of course voluntary. It is more prevalent in affluent areas and its heartland is in the south east (Turley research, 2014). In unparished areas it is the preserve of unelected groups. And yet the Government intends it to play a grown up role alongside local plans. Indeed, given that they have statutory force, unlike the NPPF, have neighbourhood plans in fact become more important than the Government’s own planning policies?
Gavin Barwell’s 12 December 2016 written ministerial statement (see my blog post That Ministerial Statement) set out that relevant policies for the supply of housing in a neighbourhood plan that is part of the development plan should not be deemed to be ‘out-of-date’ under paragraph 49 of the National Planning Policy Framework where the following circumstances arise at the time a planning decision is made: 
* the written ministerial statement making the policy change on 12 December 2016 is less than 2 years old, or the neighbourhood plan has been part of the development plan for 2 years or less;

* the neighbourhood plan allocates sites for housing; and

* the local planning authority can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites. 

The statement is of course the subject of a judicial review. In the meantime, the Government’s Housing White Paper has added the further qualification that neighbourhoods should be able to demonstrate that their site allocations and housing supply policies will meet their share of local housing need and that the local planning authority should be able to demonstrate through the White Paper’s housing delivery test that, from 2020, delivery has been over 65% (25% in 2018; 45% in 2019) for the wider authority area (to ensure that delivery rates across the area as a whole are at a satisfactory level). 
 The White Paper also proposes changes to the NPPF to “highlight the opportunities that neighbourhood plans present for identifying and allocating small sites that are suitable for housing, drawing on the knowledge of local communities”.

Finally, local planning authorities will now be “expected to provide neighbourhood planning groups with a housing requirement figure, where this is needed to allow progress with neighbourhood planning. As part of the consultation on a new standard methodology for assessing housing requirements, we will seek views on whether a standard methodology could be developed for calculating housing need in a neighbourhood plan area“.
Let us remember that these are voluntary plans, prepared by parish councils and community groups. Are we not seeing, yet again, a relentless move towards process and complexity, in an effort to make running repairs to a mechanism that was not designed for this function? 
Simon Ricketts 19.2.17
Personal views, et cetera

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