Will the Localism Bill introduce Planning by Referendum?

Andrew Matheson examines the potential impact of the drive to increase residents' ability to make local planning decisions.

Discussion: Localism Bill aims to ensure that the final decision on certain elements of local planning is genuinely 'first-hand'
Discussion: Localism Bill aims to ensure that the final decision on certain elements of local planning is genuinely 'first-hand'

"People should be able to say what kind of community they want and how it should develop; and should be able to do so in a way that is positive and first-hand ... The pace, intensity and scale of change will inevitably bring bewilderment and frustration if people affected think that it is imposed without respect for their views."

A quote from planning minister Greg Clark? No, in fact it comes from the 1969 Skeffington Report People and Planning. As a direct result of the report, planners in the 1970s embraced this new responsibility with enthusiasm, arranging exhibitions and public meetings and reporting back on outcomes.

How times have changed? Well, yes, in fact: the government is now pushing the concept of participation a step further. Rather than merely noting, as Skeffington did, that public involvement "in no way diminishes the responsibility of the elected representatives to make the final decision", the Localism Bill aims to ensure that the final decision on a couple of matters is genuinely "first-hand" by making it the subject of a local referendum.

Firstly, if a majority of those who vote say "yes" to a neighbourhood plan and/or development order once an independent examination has been completed, then that decision is binding on the council. As a result, it must make them statutory planning documents.

Secondly, through the Community Right to Build, neighbourhoods will in effect be able to approve their own proposals whatever their local planning authority's view, subject to a test of community backing via a referendum.

The apparent justification for these extensions to community rights is that they add public value to engagement in the plan-making process, showing that positive outcomes are on offer. If successful, it might be seen as a counterbalance to where the Localism Bill's "presumption in favour of sustainable development" is applied and the council moves "without delay" to approve a planning application. Public engagement in plan-making will be said to have produced robust plans that underpin council decision-taking.

But as Lord Deben noted in his column earlier this year (Planning, 23 May, p16): "People are suspicious of being asked for their views. They think they will end up taking the blame and they are ready to believe that they are not being told the whole truth. Openness and transparency from the start is the only way."

Should planners feel threatened by planning being made less the preserve of professionals? Since public participation has been part of the professional lexicon since the 1970s, it is unlikely. But planners will be acutely aware that residents will be asked to draw up what must be legally watertight planning policies. Councils are being asked to support communities in doing this but resources are tight. This may result in ready income for lawyers called upon to untangle planning webs after decisions are taken.

There is also already plenty of suspicion to overcome because neighbourhood plans may only add to, not reduce or remove, land allocations for development handed down from higher-tier local plans.

Should councillors feel threatened that democratic accountability will be sidelined? Greg Clark has sought to give reassurance on this point. In the Municipal Journal he said: "This is an opportunity for councillors to get out of the crossfire and approach planning in a much more positive way: to work closely with local communities, helping them articulate their ambitions for the place where they live, and making sure that the powers-that-be deliver."

So it seems that councillors' leadership skills will be at a premium and we must hope that they will be willing to influence the allocation of local resources too. Leadership may also be needed to head off the risk of referendums causing long-lasting conflict within communities.

Councillors meeting at the RTPI Politicians in Planning Network (PIPA) Conference in Bristol this weekend will be addressing some of these challenges, sharing experiences and finding positive ways forward.

Andrew Matheson is the RTPI network manager for PIPA. Please point your local councillors to www.rtpi.org.uk/pipa, where they can get more information and join the network for free.


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