The Localism Bill finished its passage through Parliament this week, and the consultation has closed on the new National Planning Policy Framework. The Coalition Government’s reforms in this area have been called the biggest shake-up of the planning system in fifty years. Neighbourhood planning is going to be a big deal. I’m not sure that the Government knows quite how big. But the evidence is that the current planning establishment are absolutely fucking terrified.
The system of neighbourhood planning comes largely from the Conservative green paper ‘Open Source Planning’, which identified the democratic deficit in the old planning regime, and wanted to move it away from being an issue primarily for ‘insiders’ to one where real people take the lead in shaping their own surroundings.
I’ve blogged before about how I think this will lead to better outcomes, and it’s no surprise that this Conservative policy paper made it into the Coalition agreement: it is fundamentally liberal.
But I think the vanguard schemes might be presenting an inaccurate view of how Neighbourhood Planning politics might pan out.
They have been basically cooperative, with council planning officers in some cases being heavily involved in preparing them – either as dedicated resource for the neighbourhood forum, or in some cases seemingly taking the lead on the project. In consequence, it looks like the vanguard Neighbourhood Plans generally exist to embroider District plans.
The vanguard schemes have been chosen by the Council in areas which are rather unproblematic – where the council doesn’t mind them existing.
There have been 134 front-runner Neighbourhoods.
According to an impact assessment carried out by the DCLG there are more than 4000 more neighbourhoods expected to produce a neighbourhood plan in the next 10 years.
What will these look like? I’m betting that the experience be quite different from the cooperative vanguard schemes.
At a conference recently on the Localism Bill, with an audience largely composed of members of the planning establishment, there was an audible gasp of horror in the room when someone suggested that a Neighbourhood Forum might want to do something that went against the district plan or an Area Action Plan agreed by the council. Planners fretted that there will be legal challenges if the council tries to resist.
The establishment seem terrified that neighbourhoods will think that they are in the driving seat. That people who live and work in the green belt might want to build on it.
The talk was of intervening early in the process to ‘manage expectations’ and make neighbourhood forums and parishes aware of what they couldn’t do. Or shouldn’t do, rather, because the scope within legislation is actually very broad: scarily broad for the planning establishment.
They hope that neighbourhood planning will add the fine detail, and will embroider existing plans (where they exist, I guess. Two-thirds of councils haven’t managed to get their act together and produce their main planning strategies yet, somehow).
They hope that neighbourhood plans will help by identifying development sites that are somewhat beyond the ken of the Town Hall, like infill on estates, rather than address the big questions, like deciding what development should go on brownfield sites or replace decommissioned office blocks. Anything large or important should be “beyond the scope of neighbourhood planning”, they said.
I hope that neighbourhood forums and parish councils fight such a reactionary stance if they find it in their district or borough authorities – and I predict that they will.
Most of the neighbourhood forums will probably be established because of some perceived defect with the existing system. Communities will think that the district has done planning badly and want to do a better job themselves.
This could be anti-development, and worries that the localism agenda will be hijacked by NIMBYs is well-documented. Or it could be quite the opposite. Real, working rural communities are currently desperate for rural industrial development and for affordable housing – while their planning authorities are often more representative of suburb or town, or of rich noveau-rural gentrifiers, whose main interest is preserving the green belt or countryside rather than the industrial interests and housing needs of its inhabitants.
Political parties who represent a minority on the council will want to take what control they can of neighbourhood plans, particularly if they are elected in an enclave.
Indeed, if there are any Liberal Democrat ward councillors who are not already busy working on neighbourhood plans then I would strongly urge them to do so right now – as a way of getting in touch with the other local movers and shakers, leading the debate locally, and putting a Coalition Government policy into practice thereby showing the value of coalition reforms.
Has the ALDC produced a Neighbourhood Planning guide for councillors yet?
Essentially, I predict this to be more combative than collaborative in the long term.
And that is a good thing.