Neighbourhood plan confusion stymies public input ambitions

Is anybody in the coalition government thinking through the full consequences of its policies?

It's becoming more and more the defining question facing the administration - and not just because of how spending cuts will play out or the fiasco surrounding housing benefit reforms. Last week's local growth white paper is a case in point.

This offers the usual bashing of the system before revealing the government's ideas on localism in practice.

Neighbourhood plans are the latest enigma. While the principle of communities having more say in their areas is a noble one, its execution is fraught with difficulties.

How much water such plans will hold is furrowing brows. Then there is the real nitty-gritty of who will draw them up and whether they will have the resources to do so in an era of austerity.

One estimate puts the number of neighbourhood plans at anything up to 18,000, with small districts having to draft anything up to 40 and large urban authorities looking at approaching 100. If this is anything like correct, it is a massive task.

If the country can't get a few hundred core strategies off the ground efficiently, it is debatable how many neighbourhood plans will make it.

On the plus side, any councillor who sees planning departments as an easy target in the forthcoming spending cuts must think again. A tidal wave of plans will need to be prepared, alongside a massive jump in consultation.

Councillors could ignore this, with the result that some parts of the country will do well on neighbourhood plans while others merely go through the motions. A planning system that offers only patchy coverage is not much of a planning system.

One constant criticism is that few members of the public understand how the existing planning system works. Even some planners are left scratching their heads.

The great danger is that the new tier of development plans envisaged by the white paper only adds to the muddle. How is the person in the street expected to have the faintest idea how all this activity knits together?

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