Neighbourhood planners 'should be aware of EU legal pitfalls'

Groups drawing up neighbourhood plans should be aware of the legal pitfalls around European Union regulations, a leading planning lawyer has warned.

Parish councils or neighbourhood forums drawing up development plans for their area are obliged to conform with European Union environmental regulations, according to Gary Sector, legal director of law firm Addleshaw Goddard's planning team.

Speaking at a conference this morning hosted by Addleshaw Goddard, Sector said if a neighbourhood plan allocated particular sites for development, then it should be subject to a strategic environmental assessment (SEA).

He said one of the arguments used in the judicial review challenge by two housebuilders to the draft Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan in Cheshire was that it did not comply with SEA requirements. The Tattenhall plan passed a referendum last month. 

Sector said: "No-one wants to be the first community forum to be challenged on SEA. That will be one to watch."

He also said prematurity, where a neighbourhood plan brought forward policies before the council's local plan was adopted, was another possible legal issue for the future.

According to Sector, this was another argument used by the claimants in the Tattenhall legal challenge.

Also speaking at the conference was Jenny Frew, of the Department for Communities and Local Government's (DCLG's) decentralisation and neighbourhood planning team.

She said the Tattenhall legal challenge illustrated the "level of power" that neighbourhood planning was now wielding.

She said: "Developers can throw all their money at it, to take away that power.

"If you give power to a new set of people, other people are going to test that."

Frew also encouraged neighbourhood forums to consider becoming a parish council.

She pointed out that the government had recently made the transition easier for forums with a neighbourhood plan in place by removing the need for a local referendum before becoming a parish council.

"I would urge neighbourhood forums to consider becoming a parish," she said.

According to Frew, there are now 550 designated neighbourhood planning areas, and 766 neighbourhood planning area applications submitted to councils. Meanwhile, there are 48 draft plans published and 19 at the examination stage.

Penelope Tollitt, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's head of policy and design, said she was "not a fan" of the requirement, under the Localism Act, for local referendums to take place before a neighbourhood plan is adopted.

She said: "It's an unnecessary burden and test. If you are doing a neighbourhood plan, why go through referendum when the local plan doesn't need to?"

Tollitt said she would prefer to adopt the neighbourhood plan as a supplementary planning document to avoid the need for a referendum or examination.

She advised local authorities not to focus on neighbourhood planning first but instead to "use old-fashioned community engagement" when drawing up its local development plan.

"And if the community is still not satisfied, they can go off and do their own thing," she added.

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