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Planning for a local future

  • 4 Comments

There is little doubt that when it eventually becomes law, the Localism Bill will fundamentally change the face of spatial planning.

In his speech to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation set out a clear summary of the government’s aspirations for neighbourhood planning. He said that the need for change was because the current system is an impediment to housing growth, has a negative impact on the economy because of the poor provision of infrastructure, and is a source of tension because it fails to recognise people’s real aspirations for their area and leads to assumptions against development, even where that development might be positive.

The government envisages that planners should work with communities more and be less constrained by national plans and policies. Once agreed, local plans (based on the current Local Development Frameworks) would set out where development will be presumed, and the development control framework would evolve to be less onerous. This would be set within a new, much condensed, national planning policy framework, replacing the current planning policy statements (PPSs).

Careful balancing is needed to establish exactly what the common good is

Neighbourhood plans would be developed within this framework and providing local focus on decisions rather than being a means to block local or national, planning policies, infrastructure or housing developments. Parishes and neighbourhood forums will have a natural role to play in developing and agreeing local planning principles and the government is promising support to councils to help develop neighbourhood planning in their areas.

Contentious

It’s my view that the underlying principles, which guide the operation of a spatial planning framework, should relate to identifying and delivering the common good. Whether it is where to put public amenities that might be welcomed, such as a new hospital, possibly contentious housing development, or definitely controversial infrastructure such as a motorway, a mechanism is needed to secure the best option. Clearly the number of people that might be affected in such decisions is significant and careful balancing is needed to establish exactly what the common good is.

Such proposals are outside the scope of the proposals for neighbourhood planning, and the stronger requirement to engage with people, envisaged by the Localism Bill, is good in its intentions.

However there are thousands of much smaller planning decisions made each year where many fewer people are affected. The policy framework which governs them, the local plan or local development framework, is designed to reflect the needs of a significant area, typically 150,000-200,000 people. Yet it is used as the basis for considering proposals such as for a dormer window, an extension or a porch that will fundamentally affect fewer than 100 people.

At the local level it is often these smaller decisions that matter, but the planning framework is on such a big scale that communities are unable to decide for themselves what their local definition of common good might be. Also, the process of policy determination is so onerous that decades can pass between amendments.

Five issues

Just think of the changes that there have been in approaches to sustainability, or levels of traffic, or urban design over the last ten years and what communities might be able to plan for if they were enabled to do so.

I am concerned about the differing capacity of parish councils to engage with this framework

So whilst there is some alarm in planning circles at the speed of change and the potential requirements of the Localism Bill, I welcome much of the localist intent and recognise the need to ensure decisions are taken at the right level. However I have some questions about the implementation and am concerned about the unforeseen policy consequences that might arise. I would like to set out five issues to resolve:

  • The first of these relates to the proposal to identify neighbourhood forums or use current parish structures as the basis for new Neighbourhood Development Plans and potential Neighbourhood Orders. I have no problem in principle with this proposal, however I am concerned about the differing capacity of parish councils to engage with this framework. There will need to be considerable work done to assist clerks and elected members to work with their community to make the best of this opportunity.
  • An even bigger question will hang over the best way to identify neighbourhood forums for the area that is not covered by a parish council. The challenge for all of us working with either scenario will be to help local communities to develop their community planning capacity without creating some awfully turgid process or unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Thirdly, how important is it that there is a democratic mandate for neighbourhood forums? Many parish councils have a no tradition of elections for office, many also have a non-party political culture. It will be important to consider locally what the best framework is and whether there might be a tendency within the larger parish councils to simply start recreating mini planning departments, rather than imagining a totally new 21st century form of engagement with local planning and development decisions.
  • Fourthly, it will be important to agree on what constitutes a competent neighbourhood plan, and just as importantly, who it is that decides this. What scale should this be on? Can they be nested? What advice will be needed, and what must be heeded, from the overarching planning authority? How would non spatial policies, such as conservation policies, translate between the two?
  • Finally, there is the issue of timing. On the assumption that all this is enacted in the next 12 months there will be a real need for local authorities to help provide leadership and strategic grip in facilitating the development of the relevant local forums, working with local community leaders, elected members, community activists and parish clerks to develop local planning frameworks that make sense and avoid needless bureaucracy.

I think there is the opportunity that in the long run this could shake down into a framework where decisions are devolved to a sensible level, and all levels have a say in consultations and policies.

Questions

Why should a decision about a dormer window need to be made by anyone other than people who can see it from their homes. Why should a housing infill decision be made by anyone outside an immediate neighbourhood? Why should a larger housing or retail development decision not be made by the town in which it is to be placed? And for the larger decisions, made at a more strategic level and which may feel imposed, why should people not have a say in the planning conditions or infrastructure required of the developer?

How should current planning authorities react to all of this?

Well as a localist quite a lot of what is emerging seems to make sense to me, it’s just a question of putting in place a sensible framework. Or is it quite that simple? It is clear that parish councils or something like them are key what is envisaged.

Yet a slightly puzzling spanner was thrown into the works by Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing, a couple of weeks ago, when he called for the abolition of his local parish council on the grounds that it is an extra level of bureaucracy and taxation. There will be a real need for parish councils, like all other parts of the public sector, to prove their value in the future if such challenges are to be rebuffed.

Secondly, we’re pretty much ready to get on with a lot of the work on this, obviously welcoming government assistance with some of the initial extra costs, but are very concerned about the amount of guidance coming out of CLG. It’s well meaning but not always very helpful, and there is an awful lot of it.

Opportunity

The proposals in the localism bill provide an opportunity not only to focus on the obvious spatial planning needs of a locality, but also to link these closely to community aspirations which relate to the diversity of modern communities.

This could be neighbourhood solutions relating to meeting the needs of extended families or single person households, housing and infrastructure that adapts with the aging population or the development of truly sustainable planning policy that adapts to conservation areas or modifies developments currently based on the car towards greener forms of transport.

However we will need to be careful not to make an already complex system more complicated and must find a way to develop the underlying processes in order to secure public value and deliver solutions that are for the common good. The acid test will be whether once this system is constituted, everyone has the confidence to deal with the devolution of not just easy decisions, but difficult ones too.

Daniel Goodwin, chief executive St Albans City and DC

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • Roger

    I agree with much of the sentiment expressed in this article. However, wishing that a genuine form of local representation comes in to being, be it at parish council or neighbourhood forum doesn't make it so. I, and I suspect many other elected members at the LPA level feel both insulted and under-valued by this governments proposals for the planning system. Not only does it send us a message that we have been doing a poor job representing our communities, it suggests that this can not be fixed. Government has chosen to throw away a system that they have been responsible for making onerous and complicated, whilst blaming everybody but themselves. All that was really needed was amendment and simplification, not wholesale destruction. Likewise, instead of seeking to bypass democratically elected members, who have been given a mandate by their communities, what government should be doing is properly resourcing local authorities, so that genuine participation by local communities can take place.
    Or is all this messing with the planning system really just a smoke screen? Is the real agenda hiding under the BS term 'growth', to ensure that those who have been endless complaining about not been able to cash in on their land holdings, get what they want? Too cynical? How else should one view a policy approach that, on the one hand says the system is too complicated and obstructive and needs changing and then makes that change in a way that virtually guarantees that the majority of local authorities are left in a policy vacuum and therefore vulnerable to opportunistic development?

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  • The London Assembly is looking into how neighbourhood planning will/can work in London. As well as committee hearings we will be holding a discussion forum at City Hall on the morning of 7 October. Councillors, planners, developers, community groups any anyone else who is interested all welcome, contact alexandra.beer@london.gov.uk for info or to send your views. More info also on www.london.gov.uk/assembly

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  • "And for the larger decisions, made at a more strategic level and which may feel imposed, why should people not have a say in the planning conditions or infrastructure required of the developer"

    In my experience this will never happen whilst the 2-tier county and district setup remains. For the Localism agenda to really work we need to move to unitary authorities.

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  • I diasgree with planning decisions being taken by Parish Councils, they are often too closely involved with the decision and have ''not in my back yard'' attitude. Of course there should be input into decision, but ultimately this should be left with planning officers. There is often a particular person or group who ''takes over a parish council'' for a period of four years. This is a very small number of people in comparisson to total number of residents in the area and easy to pressure and lobby especially by someone on the inside. It is difficult to address any unfair or unreasonable behaviour of parish councils as ultimately they are unpaid volunteers. Localism is very difficult to make work in practice as most of the time residents are only willing to do something when they ultimately disagree with the proposals, these are usualy people with personal interest in the matter and are not impartial. So pottentialy a planing application will be decided by a few people with little or no understanding of building regulations or planning policies to protect their own interest rather than on its merit and for the benefit of all residents.

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