How Transparent is the Neighbourhood Plan Making Process?
By Emma Williams, Graduate Planner
Next month, March 2015, marks two years since the adoption of the UK’s first Neighbourhood Plan (NP). Since the concept of Neighbourhood Planning was first introduced by the Localism Act in 2011, with its key aim to allow communities the power to shape development in their local areas, there have been 52 successful NP referendums. It is estimated that 6.1 million people in England now live in a designated Neighbourhood Area and over 340,000 people live in a community with an adopted NP. Certainly these latest figures suggest that communities have so far positively embraced these new powers, and that the opportunity to produce a NP has led to increased community engagement in the plan making process.
However, in recent months the High Court has seen an increasing number of cases of developers seeking to challenge the legality of NP policies which seek to restrict the size and location of development within Neighbourhood Areas. This prompts questions regarding the transparency of the Neighbourhood Plan process prior to the publication stage and whether steering groups should seek to resolve conflicts with land owners and developers early on in the plan making process, rather than face legal challenges post publication.
Prior to public referendum and subsequent adoption, a NP will be subject to both a Regulation 14 (pre submission) Consultation and a Regulation 16 (post submission) consultation. Despite the recommendation of Planning Practice Guidance (080) that NP groups should be in regular contact with key land owners throughout the plan making process, in many cases, the publication of the Regulation 14 consultation document is the first time that key stakeholders are able to view the draft NP. This often results in the submission of lengthy objections and legal representations to the consultation, which significantly complicates and delays the process.
The DCLG recently announced plans to set an eight-week deadline for local authorities to determine applications for Neighbourhood Planning Areas. These new regulations aim to simplify the process, encouraging more communities to formulate NP Groups and ensuring individual NP’s can be completed more quickly. However this initiative could be criticised as an attempt by the DCLG to rush NP’s forward to Regulation 14 consultation stage. For areas without an adopted Local Plan (or where a Local Plan examination has collapsed), this provides an opportunity for the draft NP policies to paper over gaps in local policy structure in the short term, but could potentially cause conflict with site allocations and emerging Local Plan policies.
It is clear that in order to reduce these conflicts which often lead to legal challenges, NP steering groups should adopt a more collaborative approach to plan making by seeking to involve land owners and key stakeholders early on in the plan making process. In addition, the publication of a clear and transparent timetable for the production of a NP, along with regular progress updates on Town Council/ NP websites will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to raise potential issues prior to the publication of the NP, thus reducing the need to challenge the plan at a more advanced stage.
Increasing levels of stakeholder engagement will be of significant benefit to areas with an adopted or emerging Local Plan, as NP groups will be able to work positively with landowners and developers with interests in allocated sites for residential and employment development to restrict inappropriate development coming forward on unallocated sites.