Last month’s Housing and Planning Bill puts more pressure on local authorities to ensure that neighbourhood plans are adopted as smoothly and swiftly as possible. The bill says the regulations will enable the secretary of state to set deadlines and timeframes for the process and reserve the right to intervene should councils fail to do what they are supposed to.
Independent consultant Tony Burton welcomed the move. He told Planning that, at present, most stages of neighbourhood planning are "entirely in the gift of local authorities", which are often "slow or deliberately obstructive". Dave Chetwyn, managing director for Urban Vision Enterprise, agreed. "Although many councils have been fairly efficient, there have been some examples of feet-dragging, where things have taken far too long," he said.
Burton said he does not expect the secretary of state to intervene routinely. But he believes that councils will see the threat of having powers taken away from them as sufficient incentive to "move things forward more smoothly than would otherwise be the case".
While he conceded that a potential drawback of setting strict deadlines could mean that local authorities "just make a decision because they have to and don’t think about it so much," he said he is certain "the benefits of this legislation are much greater than any down side".Chetwyn added that although he is a fan of clear deadlines, he thinks that special provisions should be made when it is in the interest of both a neighbourhood group and a council to delay things.
Stephen Tapper, the Planning Officers Society’s neighbourhood planning convener, said one element of the new legislation is of particular significance. Clause 13B (4) of the bill declares that the secretary of state may "direct the local planning authority to act in a way that is not in accordance with what was recommended by the examiner" if new evidence emerges or if he simply takes a different view, Tapper pointed out.
"He’s giving himself the ability to override an examiner’s recommendation, which is quite significant," Tapper said. This, he added, is "in a sense watering down the idea of complete local independence". Tapper said he is curious to find out what the circumstances and terms will warrant such an intervention, but he believes that the secretary of state would not use these powers very often. The reasoning behind it, he said, is "probably the growth agenda: he wants to make quite sure that every opportunity is taken for neighbourhood plans to promote growth and housing".