• What a Neighbourhood Plan can do… and what it can’t

    16th May 2012 | News | Claire
  • The Government claims that Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) are proof of its desire to put communities at the centre of the planning process. 

    Ministers claim that people will now be able to be in control of development in their ‘neighbourhoods.’

    Not quite.

    What they often neglect to mention in their sound-bitey broadcast interviews is that Neighbourhood Plans are pro-growth plans.  They are designed to encourage growth in communities. 

    Anyone who thinks they can reduce or limit development by preparing a Neighbourhood Plan is in for a disappointment. 

    The role of NPs is to aid growth.  And they must be in general conformity with national planning guidance (the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF) and the Local Plan.

    So what can communities do with an NP?

    Well, they can direct development to certain areas of their community, providing the relevant landowner is agreeable….  however, there is also a flaw with this too. 

    What if the Local Plan has already allocated development in a community on a particular site and then the community wants to move it elsewhere, as part of an NP?  A tricky situation ensues. 

    A developer having had land allocated for development, only to find the community has proposed to shift it to a different site under an NP, could have a strong legal case to overturn any decision of this nature.  Either that, or the planning inspector examining the NP might find the NP unsound for this reason.

    A NP is a statutory document.  It has many legal hoops to jump through.  It also has to go to public examination.  A much vaunted benefit by ministers is the referendum of community views – over 50 per cent of the community must support plans, they say. 

    However, what ministers don’t add, is that this happens AFTER the examination by the inspector (the logic of this timing beats me).  And a referendum can be optional!

    If a referendum is conducted and less than half the respondents support the plans, the entire process must start again.

    How much does it cost and who pays?
    NPs are expensive.  The trailblazer pilot schemes are ratcheting up costs of tens of thousands of pounds, paid for by public money.  The cost is mainly in the inspector’s examination and referendum.  Also, preparing consultation documents and communicating plans to residents, can be very costly.

    Who is on the NP committee?
    NPs are usually set up by parish or town councils.  On the committee will of course, be councillors.  In addition, Govt guidance states that any committee must also include representation from:
    – residents
    – community organisations
    – businesses
    – landowners
    – developers

    Can a NP protect any land from development?
    Yes it can, but it is difficult to do this because the NPPF states that any land that is put forward for protection from development must be ‘demonstrably special’ to the community.  It must also have public access.  The pro-growth NPPF adds that most land will not be appropriate to exclude from development in this way.

    Of course, NPs carry legal weight and with the uncertain status of village design statements and parish plans, a legal document that can’t be messed with is an attractive option to some. 

    Village design statements and parish plans, such as West Hill, Tipton St John and Aylesbeare have, are classed as supplementary planning documents and we won’t know the weight that these retain under new national policy (NPPF), until an appeal or two sets a precedent.

    I think it is a huge shame that the NPPF does not value these sorts of documents more, but it seems to view them as a ‘barrier to growth’ or as ‘restrictions on developers’.  I view them as immensely useful as a way of channelling comments and views on planning applications.  And they are taken into consideration by planners and planning committees, but sometimes not as much as I would like.

    But I return to my original subject – the Neighbourhood Plan. 

    So to recap, NPs can’t limit or reduce development, they cost the taxpayer a fortune, they can skip the referendum (supposedly one of the selling points), it is nigh on impossible to protect any land from development, if the community wants development in a different place from the local council there could be legal challenges …. and the process is highly structured and beauracratic.

    If you live in a community that wants to bring forward many more houses than is allocated to you, then you *might* want to look into preparing one.

    Otherwise, I can’t help thinking… what is the point of a Neighbourhood Plan?