In April, the government announced that a wave of "frontrunner" areas would pilot a new form of development plan document (DPD): the neighbourhood plan. To date, 126 English councils have each received £20,000 from the government to help prepare the plans.
Neighbourhood planning is intended to be taken forward by town and parish councils, or by neighbourhood forums: local authority-endorsed community groups set up to oversee neighbourhood planning in areas without parishes. To be adopted, plans must be approved by residents in a referendum. If this happens, they then become part of a council's local development framework.
Although neighbourhood plans will have to comply with councils' own development strategies, they will give communities more say over local planning, as they will be formal DPDs that will hold weight when applications are considered. In addition, they can be used as the basis for neighbourhood development orders, which will allow for development without planning permission if it meets criteria laid down by the forums.
But with many councils holding back their grants to pay for future consultations and referendums, there is little money to produce the neighbourhood plans, which given their status as formal planning documents have to be produced to a high standard in order to be approved and avoid legal challenge. Some parishes are allocating money from their reserves, and some are seeking funds from firms. Others are being supported by Planning Aid, the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment or one of the other three organisations sharing a £3.2 million government grant this financial year to support community planning.
Six months into the process, Planning takes a look at some of the early challenges faced by three contrasting frontrunners.
A community-led process
Redcliffe is a ten-hectare district on the edge of Bristol city centre that used to be dominated by warehouses that served the port. In recent years, many such buildings have been converted into flats. But these properties are separated from homes in the south of Redcliffe by a dual carriageway, which runs between Temple Meads railway station and Queen Square in the heart of the city centre, and beside which sits the gothic St Mary Redcliffe Church.
The area's history of neighbourhood involvement in planning stretches back more than a decade. The convenor of the Redcliffe Neighbourhood Planning Forum, Melissa Mean, who has lived in the area for five years and is an associate at think-tank Demos, says: "Our group grew out of a body called Redcliffe Futures, which previously worked to help Bristol City Council prepare a supplementary planning document for the area."
When the government announced it would pilot neighbourhood plans, the council consulted Bristol Neighbourhood Planning Network (BNPN), an organisation that links a number of the city's neighbourhood planning groups. Three groups were submitted to the government and all three were selected as frontrunners.
Approval for the Redcliffe forum, which includes people who live and work in the area and church goers, triggered further work on proposals identified in previous formal planning consultations.
Mean says that the main aims of the group's nascent plan are to reduce the dual carriageway down to two lanes and close it to all vehicles apart from buses, thereby creating a heart for Redcliffe as a neighbourhood and a "proper gateway into the city centre that Bristol can be proud of".
Bristol City Council will retain the £20,000 frontrunner area grant to pay for the plan's independent examination and the referendum. David Farnsworth, a BNPN administrator, says: "This is one of the biggest problems. The effort and money required to produce quality plans is high, yet the residents who are expected to do them have been given no money." The forum is seeking grants from local firms with large corporate social responsibility budgets.
There are other problems. Sarah O'Donnell, service manager of strategic planning at the council, says that holding a referendum on the same day as a local election - recommended as a cost-saving measure by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) - could be more expensive than holding them separately. This is because the neighbourhood plan area includes parts of several wards, she says, and so resources would have to go into ensuring that people who live in one of the wards but outside the neighbourhood area don't get a vote in the neighbourhood plan ballot.
Another issue is the siting of Bristol's enterprise zone, which overlaps with the area overseen by the neighbourhood forum. Mean says that the forum intends to introduce a neighbourhood development order to guide development on land freed up by the road reduction towards certain, as yet undecided, types of development.
However, the council has said that it intends to draw up a local development order for the enterprise zone, which would allow it to define an area where planning permission is not required for schemes that meet defined criteria. Mean says it is unclear which order would take priority where the areas overlap.
A business-steered plan
The 300-hectare Team Valley industrial park in Gateshead is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and is one of seven business-led frontrunner areas across England.
Gateshead Council applied for funding to create a neighbourhood plan for the park on behalf of landowner North East Property Partnership, a joint venture between housing and regeneration body the Homes & Communities Agency and developer UK Land Estates. Plan preparation is being led by a steering group of businesses located on the park, the landowner and the council.
UK Land Estates associate director John Seagar says the steering group is aiming to develop a neighbourhood development order covering the estate. He says: "We are already working on a local development order. It is not yet clear how a neighbourhood development order will differ, but we would move to create one of these when and if the legislation allows them. Whatever happens, we will establish our own planning regime."
The steering group has appointed a consultancy to help draw up the order and a firm of architects to advise on the design criteria the order will establish. Only a small amount of the £20,000 grant will go towards their fees, with the majority being paid for by the steering group members. The rest of the grant will pay for the consultation and referendum.
According to Seagar, the aim of the order will be to make it easy to boost the amount of industrial and warehousing space - and possibly offices - by removing the need for planning permission for such development in an attempt to add to the 700 businesses already on site. But Craig Ellis, team leader of area planning at the council, says: "The idea of the neighbourhood development order is not only to attract business, but also to allow existing businesses to grow and adapt to change without having to go through a complex planning process."
The parties seem relaxed about the timetable for their plan. Ellis says: "The DCLG is fairly flexible and has not set us a deadline. The process here will create its own timetable." The steering group is still deciding on the exact boundary for the plan to cover.
A council-led approach
Thame, with a population of just over 11,000, is the constituency of Henley MP John Howell, parliamentary private secretary to decentralisation minister Greg Clark.
Thame mayor David Bretherton says that this connection helped the town to respond quickly to the announcement of the frontrunner process. He says: "We were aware of it from a very early stage and were encouraged to take part by John Howell."
After winning frontrunner status, the town council became the neighbourhood forum and tapped into frustration among residents over South Oxfordshire District Council's plan to allocate a site for 775 homes on the edge of Thame. Bretherton says: "We are not happy with the number of homes proposed on one site and we want to decide the location of any new homes."
But, whether or not Bretherton can influence the siting of new homes in the neighbourhood depends on the examination in public (EIP) of the South Oxfordshire local plan, which began this week. Thame has made a representation to the EIP requesting complete control over the siting of homes allocated to it in the local plan.
Sue Rowlands, a director at consultancy Tibbalds Planning & Urban Design, which was appointed to work on Thame's neighbourhood plan, says: "We've explained clearly that the result of the EIP is a fork in the road. They're aware that if the decision goes against them they'll have to live with it and frame the neighbourhood plan within that context."
Less controversially, consultation with Thame residents has also identified a perceived lack of parking in the town centre, ways of encouraging more tourists to the town and ideas as to what type of businesses Thame should try to attract. Bretherton says: "Previous plans have identified land for employment, but now we have a chance to define exactly how it is developed and what type of jobs we want there."
The town council funded early consultation and is paying for the plan preparation process itself. The district council has pledged to pay for the required referendum.
Five tips for councils
How can local authorities take the initiative in encouraging neighbourhoods to get involved with the process?
1. Ensure senior officers and members are fully briefed
Neighbourhood forums can only access funding if councils apply on their behalf. But Tony Burton, director of charity Civic Voice, says that many councils are reluctant to do this. "A lot think it is more trouble than it is worth. They feel overstretched and some see it as losing control," he says. Internal briefings can be used to emphasise that getting neighbourhoods to take the strain can free up some resources, according to John Silvester, spokesman for the Planning Officers Society. Briefings should also inform councillors and officers that neighbourhood plans have to conform with the authority's local plan and so cannot be used to stop development, he says.
2. Begin conversations with potential forums
A number of the frontrunner forums sprang out of existing organisations that had a history of cooperation with local authorities. In Bristol, for example, the council worked with Bristol Neighbourhood Planning Network to identify suitable candidates for forum status. Initial conversations should help keep expectations realistic by emphasising the need for neighbourhood plans to tally with national policy and the council's local plan, according to Chris Bowden of Navigus Planning.
3. Do not assume forums will wait for your local plan
The glacial pace of some local plan preparation means that many of the tighter-focused neighbourhood plans could be in place before local authority policy is established. Ensuring that a neighbourhood plan conforms with a wider-scale plan that has yet to be finalised presents challenges. But Chris Bowden of consultancy Navigus Planning says: "Council officers should communicate where their policy is heading. This should avoid the two plans pulling in different directions."
4. Make sure the evidence base is strong
Guidance from the Planning Officers Society on neighbourhood planning points out that "contrary to some interpretations of government policy, localism does not spell the end of a need for policy to be backed by solid evidence". Because the neighbourhood plan will carry considerable weight in deciding planning applications, the local authority needs to ensure the quality of this evidence and the viability of the proposals. To help keep costs low, councils with local plans should be able to re-use evidence produced for the local plan to support the neighbourhood plan.
5. Cooperate with local groups
Councils will have a duty to cooperate with the preparation of neighbourhood plans, but until regulations accompanying the Localism Bill are released, the definition of the duty remains loose. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't useful, inexpensive things that local authorities can do now. Many councils are opening up the libraries of evidence they have collected on neighbourhoods. Others are going further by attending meetings and providing guidance on the complex world of planning policy.
Five tips for developers
What can developers do to aid the process of preparing neighbourhood plans and building relationships with local communities?
1. Consider helping to fund neighbourhood plans
There are 8,700 parish councils in England, but the government's £5 million pot for neighbourhood planning will fund only 250 plans - half of which have already been allocated cash. Chris Bowden of consultancy Navigus Planning says that developers should consider helping pay for the production of plans: "It is the difference between engagement rather than consultation." British Property Federation policy officer Ghislaine Trehearne agrees, but warns: "There is a thin line between being helpful and being perceived to be paying for influence."
2. Establish long-term partnerships
Developers should look beyond the consultation period by establishing ongoing partnership and delivery vehicles, according to a report prepared by think-tank Localis. It says that this will help developers demonstrate a long-term interest in the neighbourhood. Quoted in the report Jeff Bishop, lead consultant at the Localism Network, a collection of experts who advise on local planning, says: "There is a lot of potential, and willingness from developers, to get involved in vehicles such as development trusts to build proposed schemes."
3. Engage with residents at an early stage
The process of producing a neighbourhood plan takes much less time than a local authority development plan, with various frontrunners hoping to have their plans in place in the first half of 2012. Bishop says: "Early engagement can help develop a shared understanding of the needs and factors influencing the plan's development." Allowing residents to contribute towards the design of new buildings can help them feel empowered, he says.
4. Present your case in an even-handed fashion
With a number of neighbourhood forums motivated by suspicion and hostility to development, developers should be careful not to stoke resentment, says Chris Balch, professor of planning at Plymouth University in the Localis report. All neighbourhood plans will be subject to a referendum of local residents before they can be adopted. Anything less than an honest approach will do little to improve trust, and might even backfire, Balch says. Bishop says: "Being as open as possible is the only way that both sides can understand what trade-offs are necessary to reach development aims."
5. Involve small businesses in any proposed schemes
Another route to dispelling suspicions about development proposals that could be included in neighbourhood plans is to provide benefits to small businesses that are already active in the area. Balch says, in the Localis report: "Perceptions about large-scale development are not universally positive, but the use of small and medium-sized enterprises in communicating the benefits of a proposed development, which often possess greater links with the locality, can help secure a more sympathetic hearing from residents."