Neighbourhood planning: local involvement

People power

12 August 2015

Paul Collins looks at how Neighbourhood Plans are helping local people to get involved with decision making


For all the difficulties, the story so far on neighbourhood planning is arguably one of the most remarkable of all developments in citizen participation. If wider aspects of the Localism Act 2011 have not gained much engagement, neighbourhood planning has, as reported in local papers on a regular basis.

Introduced by the coalition government, there are now more than 1,400 Neighbourhood Plans (NP) in various stages of development and approval (see figure 1), of which 52 have now passed the referendum stage. In all cases so far, the statutory requirement for a 50% majority for NPs has been met. In St Eval, Cornwall, a 92% supporting vote was achieved with a near 34% turnout. This is set against the poor progress of Local Plan preparation and approval, with only 62% of authorities having an adopted plan.

Of the 8 English core cities, for example, 2 are still outstanding: Liverpool and Birmingham and 2 others only had their plans adopted last year and another this March. Even star performing Cambridge does not have one in place.

map of UK showing plans progress

Figure 1: Plans progress

People planning

In terms of the spatial planning hierarchy NPs are the most fine grained part of the system (see Table 1). According to the National Planning Policy Framework:

'Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and deliver the sustainable development they need.'

Table 1: Planning hierarchy
Spatial reach 
Policy document
Relevant bodies
National
National Planning Policy Framework

Government (Department of Communities and Local Government)
Regional
None
No tier: LEPs the closest body, but no spatial planning function
City Region
Currently only the London Plan
London Mayor has planning powers
Local Local Development Plan: Core Strategy Local authorities, National Park Authorities
Neighbourhood Neighbourhood Development Plan, Neighbourhood Development Order, Community Right to Build Order
Town & Parish Councils, Neighbourhood Forums Plans progress

The take up by members of the public appears far higher than engagement with the wider local plan-making process. Gnosall Parish, in the borough of Stafford, received more than 115 comments in the first round of consultation. Some authorities get no more for the whole district. Meanwhile, in Oakley, Basingstoke, about 1,000 people responded to the consultation exercise of its emerging plan, representing around half of all voters in the neighbourhood.

Perhaps nothing changes. In 1976 it is recorded that in Camden:

'Meetings held to discuss the Greater London Development Plan attracted 0.1% of the population and, of this, half the people were councillors, officers and representatives of civic and other societies. On the other hand people in a neighbourhood area do turn out and form active, if short-lived associations, when a council road proposal is made affecting the neighbourhood.'

NPs can be produced by a town or parish council, but if neither of these exist, a neighbourhood forum can do so. However, the local authority has to agree how the group is constituted.

Supporting communities in the development of Neighbourhood Plans, the Locality network has helped more than 800 groups with advice and access to financial support. Help is also available from web-based resource Our Neighbourhood.

Plan objectives

In Oxford, Headington Neighbourhood Forum’s overarching plan objective is:

  • improving the quality of life for residents, workers and students;
  • establishing and promoting an identity which embraces the diverse nature of Headington;
  • fostering beneficial development.

In doing so, it can designate sites for development and the design guidelines. In addition, the existence of a Neighbourhood Plan will mean that a town/parish council will receive 25% of the Community Infrastructure Levy collected in relation to new housing. The funding is open for the community to use as it sees fit.

Meanwhile, Bedford Borough Council states that the levy can be used for:

'the provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of infrastructure'; or

'anything else that is concerned with addressing the demands that development places on an area'.

This could include affordable housing or improved local community facilities.

Community engagement

The modern history of community engagement goes back to the Skeffington Report in 1968, which provided the basis for a formal system of public participation in plan making. While many saw it as little more than ‘telling and selling’ rather than participatory planning, it was an important step. In terms of the Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation compiled in 1969, current neighbourhood planning would seem to have taken us to at least rungs 6 and 7 (see figure 2).

The key difference in the current approach, however, is that the community directly produces their own plans – as long as it conforms with the overarching local plan. Any disjuncture between a local community’s aspirations and the wider aims might lead to slipping down a rung or two. However, in the evolution of such participatory planning processes, this might encourage an even greater involvement with wider Local Plan making processes.

In terms of publicity, some neighbourhoods have used unusual methods to raise interest. Ahead of the vote on the Inner East Preston NP, for example, the Red Rose Brass Band took to the streets to play.

diagram of Arnstein's laddr

Figure 2: Arnstein's Ladder

The process

At the outset of the NP policy initiative, in excess of 40 areas were selected as front runners by the government. Of these, the first plan to gain referendum support was Upper Eden in the Lake District. The development broadly follows the process in figure 3.

The starting point was to designate the physical boundaries of the neighbourhood area. Brough Parish Council, as the lead representing the Upper Eden community, along with 17 others in the area, submitted an application in May 2012 and following an 8-week consultation period was granted the right to produce a plan.

A draft was then prepared and submitted to Eden District Council, which issued it for public comment for the required 6-week period. An independent examiner was then appointed to review the plan and assess whether it was fit to go forward to a formal referendum. In making his recommendation, he had to confirm that the plan would meet the basic conditions as follows. They must:

  • have appropriate regard to national policy;
  • contribute to the achievement of sustainable development;
  • be in general conformity with the strategic policies in the development plan for the local area;
  • be compatible with human rights requirements;
  • be compatible with EU obligations.

The examiner was not, like a local plan, required to test its 'soundness' or examine other material considerations. Some changes were recommended and subsequently made, going forward for referendum with the support of the council in March 2013. The turnout from the constituency was 33.7% and of those, 1,310 voted in favour, with 138 against – an overwhelming majority. The plan was formally made on 11 April 2013.

The first business-led Neighbourhood Plan for Central Milton Keynes, by contrast, took over 18 months between the examiner’s report and a referendum. The reason allegedly was, ironically, a lack of funds: not a good way to promote the process. However, it has now taken place. Both businesses and residents are entitled to vote and they did so in great numbers. Taking place alongside the general and local elections, around 100,000 people voted, with 356 businesses in favour and 47 against, with one rejected paper, a turnout of 63.8%.  Of the residents, 89,801 people voted 'yes' and 17,033 'no'. Planning and development surveyor, Jeremy Edge was the plan’s examiner. All the documents and timeline can be found on the Milton Keynes Council website.

A pilot plan for Thame followed a similar process to Eden. However, notably, it was the first NP to allocate land for housing. In doing so, it spread its 775 home allocation across 4 main sites, rather than 2 larger sites favoured by the council. This was clearly important to the local community and is, arguably, exactly the level of decision making that underlines the rationale for localism.

Some plans have even provided for more housing than that set out in an overarching local plan. Cheshire West and Chester’s draft Local Plan identified the need for 3,362 homes. The Winsford NP, which contained the largest allocation of new housing yet, included a further 200 units, which according to Locality 'was in recognition of the investment that new housing would bring, helping the town achieve its aspiration of regeneration'.

diagram of development process

Figure 3: Development process

Tensions

However, there seems to be some evidence of conflict between the government’s growth agenda and more cautious plans. At the end of last year, then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles gave an emerging NP in Rolleston on Dove, Staffordshire, the benefit of the doubt in turning down a 100-home proposal after the developer won on appeal. Pickles’ view was that the appeal proposal undermined the neighbourhood plan-making process by predetermining decisions about the scale and location of new development central to the emerging Neighbourhood Plan.

Support for the housing would have prejudiced the emerging local planning policies and had wider implications for neighbourhood planning nationally.

Interestingly, this was not the first or last time that Pickles supported emerging neighbourhood plans in defending the localism agenda. As long as the planning arguments were sound, that was arguably his responsibility to do so.

These interventions are nevertheless exposing some divisions between a local authority and its parish councils. In a case concerning 280 homes submitted to Aylesbury Vale DC, the development was opposed by Haddenham Parish Council, which thought it would undermine its near complete NP.

After informing Pickles’ office, the outcome was an Article 25 notice directing the council not to grant permission without his authorisation. An officer’s report to the council had supported the application and in one part states:

'There are no grounds on which to base a prematurity argument and there would be no justification on these grounds to withhold permission for the development sought.'

It will also be interesting to see what happens to an emerging NP in Basingstoke, where an application for 85 houses by Gleeson Developments was turned down. The reasons were, in part, due to highway safety concerns, but Tom Favell, Chairman of Planning, thought the proposal undermined the NP currently under consideration by Oakley Parish Council.

It is very early days to make judgments as to the place and efficacy of these plans, but there is no doubt that the neighbourhood genie is out of the bottle. People who may have never been interested or felt able have been drawn into planning and development issues, finding a new voice and a vehicle with which to engage. As one district councillor for Hadleigh, Suffolk, said of a newly emerging neighbourhood plan: 'If you don’t plan your future, someone else will.'

Elsewhere, in sharing worries about new development, a recent letter writer to the East Sussex Times nevertheless argued in support of a plan that is up for referendum.

'With a majority YES vote, future developments will have to work their way through the neighbourhood plan and will not be able to bypass the parish council without the agreement of the parish councillors who represent residents in the first instance. Mid Sussex District Council, as the planning authority will have to take note of what our Neighbourhood Plan contains. Voting NO achieves nothing, voting YES brings the opportunity of better control, better infrastructure and a future of many possibilities.'

The current evidence is that people want to plan their local areas – or at least be involved in the decision making. While areas without town or parish councils have more organisation to do in creating a representative neighbourhood forum – more and more are coming forward.

Paul Collins is Chairman of the Planning and Development Professional Group Board and a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment

Further information