Advancing rural accord

Countryside and environmental groups are taking up their positions on localism ahead of next month's promised legislation to introduce it into the planning system.

Countryside: campaign charter outlines challenge to localism delivery
Countryside: campaign charter outlines challenge to localism delivery

The decentralisation and localism bill is expected next month and a radical overhaul of the planning system will be a significant part of it. In anticipation, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has published a charter for planning reform highlighting the key areas it wants ministers to address.

One part of its prescription has already gone on the back burner. Last week the DCLG confirmed that a third party right of appeal - which the CPRE insists is central to the localism agenda - will not be included in the bill despite earlier support from both coalition parties (Planning, 22 October, p2).

"The government should stick to its guns and not bow to pressure from the development lobby," says CPRE policy director Neil Sinden. "Our countryside and green spaces are far too important for that."

Hogan Lovells partner Michael Gallimore believes that the government has seen sense on this one. "This announcement will be welcomed by the development industry," he says.

"In circumstances where the local community is to be embraced within planning decision-making as part of the localism agenda, the pressure for third party rights of appeal should logically diminish."

But how will localism affect planning? Will the forthcoming changes meet the CPRE's aim to protect and enhance the countryside and regenerate towns and cities for future generations? The Countryside Alliance has aligned itself with its fellow rural campaigners in endorsing moves to put local communities in the driving seat on planning decisions.

The alliance argues that local solutions to local problems offer the best chance of solving the shortage of affordable housing in rural communities. Harnessing local knowledge rather than imposing decisions is the way to reduce nimbyism because communities would be more involved throughout the planning process, it reasons.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) senior campaigner Anna Watson sounds a note of caution. "We are concerned that it will only be well resourced, articulate individuals who drive neighbourhood plans. In this new system, the most disadvantaged and socially excluded communities have to be empowered and supported to participate. We are concerned that the resources to deliver this will not be forthcoming from the coalition."

SNR Denton senior partner Stephen Webb feels that it is important to find the right balance between democracy and decision-making. Regarding CPRE's charter he says: "It is encouraging to see all those directly involved in the planning system expressing concern about the need for continuing strategic planning, without which there will be no framework for the localism agenda."

Gallimore adds: "Surely local authority officers are employed because of their expertise to advise on planning proposals and local members are elected to take decisions.

"If their roles are overridden, we run the risk of planning being decided by a vocal minority. I'm not convinced it is going to result in the best form of decision-making to plan our built environment."

While the CPRE is in favour of empowering local people, it stresses the importance of maintaining aspects of the existing planning process. Financial incentives to persuade local authorities to allow new housing and community right to build referendums should be required to comply with local plans, it contends. But the Countryside Alliance welcomes incentives, suggesting that a more carrot, less stick approach will encourage affordable housing.

Planning minister Greg Clark stoutly defends the incentives move. "The current local government finance system does not provide the right incentive or rewards for councils to build new homes. Rewarding rather than penalising councils is not only fairer, it will be far more effective than the failed top-down regional targets," he insists.

Town and Country Planning Association chief executive Kate Henderson believes that democratically responsible localism must be collaborative, visionary, outcome-based and inclusive. "The CPRE is absolutely right to flag up the need for a robust evidence base for communities in local plan-making, a national planning framework in setting priorities and an accountable and transparent strategic overview to issues such as infrastructure delivery and climate change," she remarks.

Countryside and environmental campaigners are sceptical about local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), which are to replace regional development agencies. FoE warns against giving LEPs a strategic planning role. "They will not be democratically accountable and I don't see how you can join up neighbourhood plans with an LEP strategy," says Watson.

The CPRE also discounts a planning role for the partnerships because of their narrow economic remit. It wants more focus at national level. "It is important not to lose sight of the vital role a strong national framework must play in protecting our unique English countryside," says chief executive Shaun Spiers.

The campaign remains optimistic about the future. It urges the government to draw on the best elements of the planning system to ensure that the next stage in its evolution delivers appropriate development while protecting and enhancing the countryside. "Based on the Open Source Planning green paper, we do not believe that the government wants to move backwards," it concludes.

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