Neighbourhood planning is supposed to be a key element in central government’s reforms of the planning system in England. It is, however, controversial. The philosophy underpinning localism and, by extension, neighbourhood planning, is not recent. For example, in New York in the 1950s a powerful city planner was stopped in his tracks in lower Manhattan by a neighbourhood campaigner who championed a community-centred approach to urban planning. In the UK, localism and neighbourhood planning can be seen as the latest evolution of a process of increasing public involvement in the planning system. The post-war reconstruction of towns and cities relied heavily on professional expertise and authority but the required level of public trust began to break down in the 60s as evidenced by the Skeffington Report People and Planning which sought to give the public a greater opportunity to participate in plan-making process.
Arguably, this process was halted under the New Labour government, which introduced a number of new measures that increasingly centralised planning decision-making and reduced the opportunities for public participation with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 despite, at least superficially, enabling enhanced public participation with the introduction of such measures as Statements of Community Involvement. This process was taken further with the introduction of the notionally independent Infrastructure Planning Commission by the Planning Act 2008. These legislative and procedural changes moved planning further away from the people and proved to be unpopular and, in the case of development plans, inefficient. Thus delays with development plan preparation remain some 14 years after the new system was introduced. It has also resulted in large-scale planning by appeal, which has proved to be very unpopular with the public, especially in those areas under greatest pressure from new development.
As a consequence, the concept of neighbourhood planning began to emerge as an alternative approach. Originally a policy initiative of the coalition government, further reforms aimed at strengthening neighbourhood planning have been legislated for by the Conservative government. As Dove J observed in Richborough Estates Ltd v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government  EWHC 33 (Admin) the evidence before the court was:
‘that there are differing views as to whether they are a constructive part of the planning system’.
A report from planning consultancy Lichfields in May 2018 threw considerable doubt on the government’s repeated claims that neighbourhood plans allocate on average 10 per cent more homes than councils’ local plans. The Lichfield report analysed 330 adopted or ‘made’ plans, which was well over half the 542 plans that had been completed at that time. It is understood that the government has not disputed the Lichfield report’s findings. Nonetheless, a number of judicial decisions illustrate that the courts are reluctant to frustrate the neighbourhood planning process. National planning policy changes introduced in July 2018 suggest that there may be a cooling of enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning at the level of central government.