By Alan Gillies
Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.
The Localism Act 2011
The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)
The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.
Progress so far
Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process. 6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.
Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.
The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.
Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15
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