Policy Briefing: What neighbourhood plan changes mean for councils and communities

The Neighbourhood Planning Bill should boost council and developer engagement in plan-making, says Jon Herbert.

Neighbourhood planning: bill seeks to strengthen emerging plans
Neighbourhood planning: bill seeks to strengthen emerging plans

How does the Neighbourhood Planning Bill seek to change the neighbourhood planning process?

The bill aims to clarify the weight given to neighbourhood plans at each stage of preparation. It requires councils to outline what support they will give communities preparing neighbourhood plans and establishes systems for how councils might vary an adopted, or ‘made’, plan’s area or content.
Planning Practice Guidance is not clear on the weight that should be given to an emerging neighbourhood plan. If enacted, the Bill will add a provision for councils to have regard to post-examination plans into section 70 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990, and confirmation that neighbourhood plans become part of local development plans once approved at referendum into section 38 of the Planning and Compulsory Planning Act 2004. This will give more plan-makers, applicants and decision-makers more certainty.

The government proposed that councils regularly review their statements of community involvement, which outline their policies on community involvement in planning. The duty to produce such statements has been in place since 2004, but the bill proposes that councils review such statements every five years, and set out in them their policy for supporting neighbourhood planning groups.

Will these changes speed up and strengthen neighbourhood planning process?

Clarification of the weight accorded to neighbourhood plans will strengthen them an bring them into force sooner, as they will not need to be formally ‘made’ by the local authority before they become part of the development plan. We should then ask why plans still need to be formally made, as this can create delays following the referendum.

At present, section 38a(6) of the 2004 Act provides scope for a local authority to refuse to adopt a plan. However, so far there have been no instances of this happening and it should be possible to check and resolve any issues that concern an authority through the plan-making process, particularly at the submission and examination stage.

These changes will benefit those preparing plans, signifying to local communities that if they invest time and resources into neighbourhood planning, they will see the benefits being delivered sooner.
The process by which the area or content of a ‘made’ plan can be modified should also bring greater clarity. But questions remain as to how, and what constitutes a ‘significant’ change to the plan, as outlined in the bill. Significant changes will sometimes trigger the need for further consultation and examination. Will this really speed up the process – or retain an additional layer of complexity?

What implications do the proposals have for local authorities? Do they put any new burdens on them?

It is important that communities and authorities work together to deliver plans that represent the aspirations of the community, but can also effectively be used by the authority in decision-making and its policies implemented by officers.

However, the current duty of councils to support neighbourhood plan groups is poorly defined and varies between councils. By clearly setting out their offer in revisions to their statement of community involvement, authorities will be able to better work in partnership with communities, with support provided at the right time.

What implications do the changes have for developers?

The changes should introduce more certainty for developers and may lessen the likelihood of neighbourhood plan challenges and appeals. This should encourage landowners and developers to engage more proactively in the process.

Engaging with neighbourhood plans early will help produce a stronger, more robust strategy. Communities can find engagement with developers difficult, though, and there is perhaps a facilitation role for local authorities here - which could be outlined in updated statements of community involvement.

Jon Herbert is associate director of Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design


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