A raft of new neighbourhood planning requirements, outlined in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill introduced to Parliament last week, are intended to speed up and strengthen the neighbourhood planning regime. Experts say that a proposed duty on local planning authorities to give weight to neighbourhood plans that have passed examination will reinforce the status of post-examination plans.
According to explanatory notes published alongside the bill, the proposed new powers would require councils to "have regard to a post-examination neighbourhood development plan" when dealing with planning applications, "so far as that plan is material to the application".
Simon Ricketts, a partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons, pointed out that a draft plan that has gone through examination is already a material consideration under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. "Not only is it material, but it is likely to have considerable weight, due to the stages that it has been through," said Ricketts.
But he added that the move will reinforce the influence of post-examination plans by specifically stating that they have weight. "It does create an additional trip hazard for councils, because it makes it much easier for an objector to say you didn’t consider this draft plan or that policy as a material consideration," he said.
"I think the change emphasises the importance of neighbourhood plans to the government," said Richard Harwood QC, barrister at 39 Essex Chambers. "I would be surprised if this led to a different outcome in any planning application, but if plans are specifically identified as something to be considered, there will be less excuse for not doing so."
Chris Bowden, director at consultancy Navigus, welcomed the move. "A lot of neighbourhood plans have been given no weight until they are adopted. That is not consistent with the position on development plan documents," he said. "This will send a clear message that authorities will have to give them that much more weight."
An accompanying measure in the bill proposes that neighbourhood plans should become part of an area’s development plan as soon as they are approved at referendum. The government is also proposing that local planning authorities should regularly review statements of community involvement (SCI), which set out an authority’s policies on involving its community in aspects of planning such as preparing local plans and deciding applications. Although the duty to produce such statements has been in place since 2004, the technical consultation document accompanying the bill notes that "the performance of authorities in keeping them up-to-date is variable".
Initial research shows that around a quarter of local planning authorities’ statements of community involvement were last updated before 2012, the consultation document said.
It therefore proposes new duties for councils to review their SCIs every five years, and to set out in them their policies for supporting neighbourhood planning groups and involving interested parties in the preliminary stages of plan-making.
Bowden said that this move was "really positive" because it would clarify how neighbourhood groups can get involved in shaping local plans. "Sometimes groups should put the neighbourhood plan to one side, and focus on engaging with the local plan first," he said. "But, in my view, local authorities often use traditional engagement techniques in preparing local plans, which don’t often work. Making them think positively about how to engage with communities is an important step."
Neil Homer, planning director at consultancy rCOH, warned that the measure would not necessarily encourage councils to offer more support to local groups. "In most of the local planning authorities that do not offer the kind of support the government would like them to, the problems are deeply cultural. No legal stick is going to change that overnight," he said.
The bill proposes a range of other changes to the neighbourhood planning system, including a more flexible process for modifying neighbourhood plans. The technical consultation document stipulates that councils should be able to make minor modifications to plans or orders "at any time, without the need for public consultation, examination or referendum", and proposes a new streamlined procedure that could be used to make more significant changes, provided they are "not so significant or substantial as to change the nature of the plan".
In such instances, there would be a "stronger expectation that the independent examination will be ‘paper based’ with hearings only in exceptional circumstances". There would also be no referendum, the consultation document adds, "with the examiner’s recommendations being binding in most cases". Where modifications change the nature of the plan, the existing process for making new neighbourhood plans would remain. Neighbourhood planning consultant Tony Burton said the measures "represent a helpful tightening of the process and would assist in more speedy reviews".
The government has also confirmed that it will be pressing ahead with a series of changes and new timescales for the various stages of the neighbourhood planning process, which it consulted on earlier this year. It said that it aims to publish new regulations and guidance outlining the changes "as quickly as possible", and to bring them into force by October.