Minister risks protecting too many neighbourhood plans, by Richard Garlick

The government view on the correct weight to be given to neighbourhood plans in decision-making has not always been easy to gauge in the past few years.

But ministers have generally been consistent about viewing neighbourhood plan housing policies as out-of-date when the local planning authority (LPA) does not have a five year supply of housing land.

The upshot has been several instances in which local groups that have worked hard to put a parish plan in place have seen it ignored because of wider local plan-making shortcomings. Concern about this amongst Conservative MPs has been mounting, with 15 backbench Tories this week seeking to amend the Neighbourhood Planning Bill to "specify that neighbourhood plans should be taken into account notwithstanding the lack of a five-year supply of housing land".

Perhaps because of this, planning minister Gavin Barwell issued a written ministerial statement (WMS) this week. The statement makes it less likely that neighbourhood plans will be ruled out-of-date simply because of the local plan’s lack of a five year housing supply.

For the next two years, assuming no further amendments to policy, all neighbourhood plans that allocate sites for housing, and are part of the local development plan, will be viewed as up-to-date as long as the LPA has a three year housing land supply. After that, all neighbourhood plans that have been part of the local development plan for two years or less will be seen as up-to-date, assuming the three year supply.

Several planning consultancies have responded with alarm, saying that the statement poses a great threat to the government’s housebuilding targets.

Certainly, in areas without adequate housing land supplies in which the neighbourhood plan’s force has overnight been restored, it will surely make it harder to get sites permitted for development.

Sites that might have looked acceptable for development in the context of a planning authority needing to demonstrate a five year housing supply will look less so if the council only needs to show three years’ worth of plots.

Similarly, in such council areas, neighbourhood plans that do not meet their fair share of the LPA's five year housing need will not be judged out of date, as long as they conform with the local plan's stated strategic development needs.

Inspectors that have concluded inquiries and are now weighing up decisions on appeals in affected areas, who might have been confident that the LPA in question fails the five year test, will often find it harder to be sure whether it has failed the three year test, if only because their focus would hitherto have been solely on the five year criteria.

Ultimately, the impact of the change will depend on how widely it applies. At the moment, only 230 neighbourhood plans are in place, although many of these will be in areas of high housing demand, and more are coming forward all the time.

Only those that allocate housing sites are affected. Several experts have suggested that the meaning of allocation in this context will be open to interpretation. But at least one claims that many neighbourhood plans in the south will make some allocations.

Similarly, only neighbourhood plans in areas which don’t have a five year land supply but do have a three year land supply will see their status change. How many neighbourhood plans that applies to is unknown to Planning, but presumably the quantity must be reasonably significant, or the government would not have thought it worthwhile to publish the WMS.

It is for all these reasons that those promoting development are highly concerned. But several have grasped at what they see as a thread of hope – a paragraph in the statement that promises that the forthcoming housing white paper will ensure that "new neighbourhood plans meet their fair share of housing need". Such a measure in the white paper will be necessary, because the WMS seems certain to give substantial weight to neighbourhood plans that do not attempt to make a fair contribution to meeting their LPA’s five year housing need.

The minister’s concern that neighbourhood planners should not be unfairly penalised for the shortcomings of the LPA is understandable. But only neighbourhood plans that can demonstrate that they have done their bit to contribute to meeting local housing need should be protected from being seen as out of date. Until the provisions of the housing white paper are implemented, at some unspecified future date, it appears that protection will also be extended to less robust neighbourhood plans.

This is the last online edition of Planning in 2016. Our next online edition appears on January 6 2017. We wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers. 

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning 

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