What will be the power of Neighbourhood Plans in the future? 26 Oct 2020
This week (12th October 2020) I attended a webinar organised by the Civic Voice, the national charity for the civic movement in England, at which two members of the task force, who drafted the Government’s White Paper Planning for the Future (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future), were asked questions about the process and the content of the Government’s proposals (the White Paper has gone out for public consultation with the deadline of 29th October for responses).
There is much in the Government’s White Paper, which can only be described as immensely ambitious because it is an almost total reform of the present planning system. The proposals are clearly close to the heart of the present government, as most unusually, the White Paper has a foreword from the Prime Minister himself, in which he compares the present planning system to an old building that has been tinkered with in the past but is now ready for demolition. The main focus of the proposals is on building more homes. The Government recognises that politically it needs to deal with the drastic decline in the availability of housing and the failure to build enough new homes, which has led to a ‘housing crisis’. The Government is setting the target of 300,000 new homes a year; the last time this number was reached was back in the 1960s.
However, in one area which happens to be close to my heart, Neighbourhood Plans (NPs), where a local community can draw up its own ideas on planning in its area, there is considerable uncertainty about their future role in the planning process. It is important for St Albans as I have been asked by the Council, with the support of the Business Improvement District (BID), to lead on producing a City Centre Vision (CCV). The last CCV for St Albans was back in 2009 and considerable change has taken place since then: the impact of the decline of retail, internet purchasing, the relaxation of the controls on permitted development (whereby commercial and retail properties can be converted into residential), climate change, pollution and the recognition of the importance of ‘greening’, have changed our view on what city centres will look like in the future; and now the need for social-distancing and the importance of public health, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, has added a further dimension for consideration. The need for a new vision for St Albans’ city centre is clear. Under the Localism Act of 2011, the process for establishing a vision which has statutory powers that a Local Planning Authority (LPA) can enforce is an NP.
In a recent blog on the Royal Town Planning Institute website, Neil Homer a professional planner of 30 years experience, while writing about his support for neighbourhood planning believes:
On the face of it, the Planning for the Future white paper poses an existential threat to neighbourhood planning. The proposals for zoning, site allocations and development management policymaking all exclude neighbourhood plans, relegating them to nothing more than town and village design statements, which up until now have been too easy to ignore.
So back to the webinar, here was my chance to ask members of the White Paper task force – the team that drafted the document – what did they think was the future of Neighbourhood Plans, were they really going to be made toothless by the new proposals: Chris Katkowski, a QC and planning lawyer, didn’t give a direct answer to the question but saw opportunities for local communities to get more involved at an early stage (‘frontloading’ in the White Paper jargon) of Local Plans, which are a statutory requirement placed upon LPAs. The other member of the panel from the task force, Nicholas Boys Smith, a member of Historic England Commission, co-chair of the controversial Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and now appointed by the Government to lead a new national design body, claimed to be a fan of NPs but criticised them, “as too many are statements of aspirations” rather than dealing tangible elements of design like street trees and furniture.
In the end, I can’t say I was completely reassured that embarking on the complex and time-consuming process of creating a NP would have the necessary legal force for implementation. On the other hand, there is at present no firmer way of ensuring a local community’s view on what their city centre should look like in the future has a statutory status – so it’s onwards and upwards…