Neighbourhood Plan Areas - Changes to the Appeal Recovery Process
By Chris Sinton
The Communities Secretary last week announced temporary amendments to the criteria for the recovery of planning appeals (30 June 2008, Official Report, Column 43WS). These amendments will be enforced until 10th July 2015, after which they will be reviewed and apply:
to proposals for residential development of over 10 units in areas where a qualifying body has submitted a neighbourhood plan proposal to the local Planning Authority; or
where a neighbourhood plan has been made.
Planning ‘recovery’ should not be confused with ‘call-in’ (where the original application decision is taken away from the council and made by Ministers). Recovery involves Ministers making appeal decisions that would otherwise be made by the Planning Inspectorate.
The move comes as the Coalition Government seeks to reaffirm its commitment to devolving power to local communities, specifically neighbourhoods, parishes and local residents ahead of next year’s general election. The Localism Act introduced a series of new community rights, including neighbourhood planning, which the Government states it is still strongly committed to encouraging, allowing local people to get the right type of development for their communities, whilst still meeting the needs of the wider area.
The ministerial statement confirms that: “all planning appeal decisions should reflect the Government’s clear policy intention when introducing neighbourhood planning, which was to provide a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure they get the right types of development for their community, while also planning positively to support strategic development needs. [Communities Secretary Eric Pickles] is therefore keen to give particular scrutiny to planning appeals in, or close to, neighbourhood plan areas to enable him to consider the extent to which the Government’s intentions are being achieved on the ground.”
The amendments to the recovery criteria come at a politically sensitive time for the Coalition Government with next year’s General Election looming, and follow a raft of similar amendments to the appeal recovery criteria on issues such as traveller sites and wind farms.
Last week’s ministerial statement is quick to highlight that local communities have positively embraced real community involvement through the Neighbourhood Planning process with 1,000 neighbourhood area designations passed and 20 successful referendums held to date. However, the figures do not report the split of neighbourhood plan applications received by Local Authorities, with the majority submitted in the south of England or in Conservative controlled Councils. Furthermore, of the 13 made Neighbourhood Plans, 10 (77%) are within Conservative Authorities. This leads to questions over whether these amendments are intended to show voters in traditional, often rural, Conservative seats that the Government is committed to localism and real community involvement.
In operational terms the ministerial statement alluded to the fact that the Secretary of State (SoS) would give particular scrutiny to planning appeals in, or close to, neighbourhood plan areas. Nowhere is ‘close to’ quantified, which raises questions over how the recovery criteria will be interpreted.
Whilst the ministerial statement confirmed that not all such appeals will be recovered it does highlight the increased likelihood that the SoS will recover a number of appeals. The amendments to the recovery criteria will create yet another layer to an already complex process, further centralising planning functions from the Planning Inspectorate.
Key questions still remain over how the SoS will interpret these new recovery powers. Given this and the increasing importance being afforded to Neighbourhood Plans developers and landowners may need to consider how to become more embedded in the process to ensure that the most appropriate sites are taken forward.
In closing, these amendments further politicise an increasingly political planning system with the Coalition Government seeking to demonstrate its commitment to Localism whilst simultaneously centralising the process. The next 12 months will undoubtedly prove an interesting testing ground for the development industry promoting sites within or close to Neighbourhood Plan areas.