Umbrella body Locality, which provides support and grants on behalf of the government for groups undertaking neighbourhood planning, has announced that, for the next six months, only designated neighbourhood forums will be able to bid for its direct support programme.
Also eligible are parish or town councils whose plans are within two months of reaching their pre-submission consultation stage, which takes place just before the draft document is examined.
The direct support programme involves Locality providing advice and support to groups on various stages of the neighbourhood planning process. The organisation said it comes to an average equivalent of £9,500.
In a statement, Locality said that support for all groups will reopen in February 2014, adding: "Due to the popularity of the programme, the availability of certain parts of the direct support programme is currently limited."
A spokeswoman said that the grants payments programme, in which groups can bid for up to £7,000 each for preparing a neighbourhood plan or order, is unaffected.
The two-year, £9.5 million Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme was launched on 15 April 2013.
Locality said it is currently helping over 300 groups and has awarded over £1.7 million in grants.
A Locality spokeswoman said: "We have been overwhelmed with the level of interest, this is a programme with finite resources and we’re focusing on where there is the most demand and need.
"We are continuing to offer support to groups writing plans, but at this point this is limited to designated forums.
"These have been under represented in terms of applications and so we are keen to support them.
"We’re already supporting a large number of groups at the early stages of the process so we need to ensure we’re able to help groups in the middle or final stages."
Consultant Tony Burton, who specialises in neighbourhood planning advice, said it was a "very short-sighted decision" and warned that the move could "snuff out" new entrants to the process.
He said: "It’s really disappointing.
"It takes the wind out of the sales of the first shoots of neighbourhood planning starting to take place in communities across the country.
"It’s really important to prioritise those communities showing their first interest in neighbourhood planning and not cut off their support.
"If they had to prioritise, it would be better to reduce funding for groups already up and running."
But Neil Homer, planning director of consultancy rCOH, said he objected to the government providing free neighbourhood planning support.
He said: "I can’t compete with a free service.
"It’s absolutely right the government should target funding for areas where the market is broken, those urban areas of the country that aren’t parished where, in most cases, there are no obvious candidates for bringing forward a plan.
"I would have more of a problem if they constrained money going into the grant programme. All our clients are using the grant programme and that’s how it should be."
In other neighbourhood planning news, two housebuilders have applied for a judicial review to block a neighbourhood plan in Cheshire.
Barratt Homes and Wainhomes have applied to overturn a decision by Cheshire West and Chester Council to approve the draft Tattenhall neighbourhood plan.
A referendum on the plan takes place tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood planning designation applications continue to pour in in Herefordshire, England’s busiest district for neighbourhood planning activity. There have been six more applications and three designations made in the past month, producing totals of 65 applications and 53 designations.
Interest in the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme (figures from Locality):
· 679 expressions of interest
· 430 successful applications
· Awarded £1,677,000 in grants
To view the interactive map of neighbourhood planning activity in England, click here.