Parish plans decisions miss deadline

Only one in four applications by community groups and parish councils to take on neighbourhood planning powers are being decided within the ten-week window that the government proposes to make compulsory, Planning analysis shows.

Analysis shows up discrepancy between capital and regions [Photo Alamy]
Analysis shows up discrepancy between capital and regions [Photo Alamy]

Our sample of 270 emerging neighbourhood plans from across the country shows that just 71 bodies had their applications determined inside 70 days by their local authority.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) set out proposals in the summer for a ten-week deadline. This would mean that councils would have to decide whether to approve parish councils’ or community groups’ applications to define a neighbourhood area in that time – the first step in the neighbourhood planning process.

The deadline would only apply to proposals that follow parish and electoral ward boundaries and where there are no competing applications – hence, some of the bids in our survey, particularly those from urban groups, would be exempt.

The measure was one of several published for consultation with the aim of speeding up neighbourhood plan preparation.

According to our sample, the quickest decision was made by Durham County Council on an application by Sedgefield Town Council, which took just 38 days.

The longest was by Westminster City Council over the Little Venice and Maida Vale neighbourhood area application, which took 646 days, more than a year and nine months.

Second-longest was the Spring Boroughs neighbourhood area, designated by Northampton Borough Council in 573 days. The average decision time was 130 days, twice as long as the suggested deadline.

DCLG research published in its consultation document looked at 572 designated neighbourhood planning areas and found a slightly faster average determination time.

It estimated that authorities took 126 days on average to designate areas. But it found "considerable variation, with some taking only 45 days and others up to 400".

Planning’s research also showed significant regional variations, with designations in London taking the longest, at 289 days – almost twice as long as the second-slowest region, the East of England. In contrast, designations in the West Midlands took an average of just 79 days.

Planning measured only neighbourhood plans with a clear date of validation or receipt by the local authority, or, if neither were apparent, the date the application was sent. This was compared to the date of the designation decision.

In Westminster, the council’s former strategic director of the built environment, Rosemarie MacQueen has long highlighted the high number of applications the authority has received, currently standing at 25.

She has also said many involved competing bids by different groups for the same or an overlapping area, a problem that often required council-led resolution.

The Little Venice and Maida Vale designation saw the authority refuse the application’s initial boundaries because it was deemed to involve two separate neighbourhoods. The council backed another area instead.

In Northampton, the designation of the Spring Boroughs neighbourhood forum took a long time because of the amount of community engagement needed, the council has said.

Tim Hadland, Northampton Borough Council’s cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and planning, said the authority has so far helped four communities embark on neighbourhood planning.
Three areas involved parish councils with defined boundaries so designation was "a simple process", he said, and each took about three months to complete.

He added: "Spring Boroughs was different. It was important that we worked with the community to give the best possible chance to succeed.

"We were able to support them in establishing a neighbourhood area and forming a group that was fully constituted and accountable to local residents. This inevitably takes time. By working with local people we strengthened the application."

Sue Rowlands, director at consultancy Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, said it is unsurprising that designations took longer in London and other cities. She said: "Forums in urban areas will always be harder than parishes because there isn’t an obvious red line. If there are competing groups, you need to untangle what the issues are.

"I’ve been very impressed with how Westminster has handled competing designations. If you put it under pressure with a 70-day deadline, it will be difficult. But 70 days for a parished area seems reasonable."

Rowlands said she expected quicker designations for neighbourhood areas in future as councils become more used to the process.

Stephen Tapper, the Planning Officers Society’s neighbourhood planning convenor, said he also expected councils to be able to handle applications quicker as time went on, pointing out that this is a new process.

He said: "There will always be situations where things are more difficult to work through or where there are competing forums who want to do their own plan.

"It’s not surprising there are many cases where councils have had to give these things a lot of thought and consultation.

"But there are areas for improvement. In many cases, councils can do better by giving these things more priority."

According to Tapper, the society felt from the start that neighbourhood planning "would be more difficult to progress in complex, urban areas", where as many rural areas have had more experience in parish and town council-led planning.

*NOTE: this story was updated at 10.45am on Friday October 17 to add a comment by Stephen Tapper.

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