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28/10/2020

Neighbourhood plans improve local engagement but work needed to expand activity

Words: Laura Edgar
Community / iStock

Local engagement with planning authorities has been improved through neighbourhood planning and plans have become ‘important vehicles’ for placemaking beyond land use planning, according to an independent report. 

However, government action is needed to expand neighbourhood planning activity so that its benefits can be felt more widely, argues Impacts of Neighbourhood Planning in England.

Evidence from local planning authorities and appeals indicates that neighbourhood plans have an influential role in decisions, and reflect their legal status, found the report’s authors. At a minimum, “they provide nuance to decisions”.

Produced by the University of Reading, the research draws together surveys of those involved in the neighbourhood planning process, including local planning authorities, consultants and communities who have completed or struggled to complete a neighbourhood plan. 

Its authors (see box) were asked by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to assess a number of core objectives of neighbourhood planning, including development impacts, impact on housing supply, decision-making, community attitudes and engagement, and success factors and barriers. 

Professor Gavin Parker from the University of Reading and co-author of the report, told The Planner that the research showed positives but also highlighted issues.

“Neighbourhood plans can add value and in some cases assist in housing delivery. However, the process is challenging for most and this is reflected in both the pattern of take-up and in the fact that new neighbourhood plan starts have been slowing. So regardless of the advent of the planning white paper the research showed that neighbourhood planning needed to be reformed.”

The findings

Neighbourhood planning’s contribution to the supply of housing “can be significant”, the report states, however, those communities that sought to allocate land for housing faced more technical and political burdens than those that did not allocate housing. 

If the production of neighbourhood plans was scaled up, they “could make a significant contribution to housing supply” – particularly, the report explains, if cooperation between neighbourhoods and local planning authorities is strengthened.

The study also found:

  • More than half of the local planning authorities that responded see neighbourhood development plans as having a ‘moderate’ or ‘high’ degree of influence on decision-making. If an application goes to appeal, responses suggest that “the vast majority” go in favour of the neighbourhood development plan.
  • No evidence was turned up to suggest that neighbourhood plans are ignored but some communities felt they were not recognised clearly, indicating that local planning authorities could communicate better how these plans have been taken into account in policy and decision-making. The report suggests that MHCLG could share best practice to support authorities in their role in developing and implementing neighbourhood plan policies. 
  • Community attitudes to development may become more positive as a result of the neighbourhood plan experience, and the acceptability of development is supported by a large proportion of plans with policies on design and affordable housing.
  • Take-up since 2011 has been strong, but there are many neighbourhoods that have not used this community right. In particular, take-up in urban areas and northern regions is low. The reasons for this are various, but the government will need to take “affirmative action” to sustain and expand neighbourhood planning activity. Further, the government is “missing an opportunity to realise benefits in urban and deprived areas and assist in their levelling-up agenda”. It should consider increasing support to reflect additional challenges faced by these communities.
  • Support from consultants and a positive relationship with the local planning authority are important in progressing neighbourhood plans. The report states: “MHCLG could do more to identify and share best practice for local planning authorities, particularly around site identification. The process remains burdensome for community volunteers with the time taken to reach completion around three years (and for many it can take longer).”
  • Local planning authority support overall is varied, with examples of strong support but also ambivalence in other areas. A common criticism was duplication of policies and MHCLG could find ways of better aligning/integrating local plans and neighbourhood plan processes – through clearer ongoing communications between local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning groups.

    The authors of Impacts of Neighbourhood Planning in England:

    • Prof Gavin Parker (University of Reading)
    • Dr Matthew Wargent (University of Reading)
    • Dr Kat Salter (University of Birmingham)
    • Dr Mark Dobson (University of Reading)
    • Dr Tessa Lynn (University of Reading)
    • Dr Andy Yuille (Lancaster University)
    • and Navigus Planning

     

The authors identify a number of areas where work is required, such as continued support from the government for neighbourhood plans. And they recognise that while take-up of plans has dropped and it is not always the best option for communities, neighbourhood planning should be practically available to all communities that want to go down this route.

They go on to recommend refined funding and support arrangements for communities and local planning authorities so they can deliver appropriate neighbourhood planning support. They contend that particular attention should be paid to urban and deprived areas, which could be in the form of a different model of support such as dedicated officer time or reversals to previous cuts to ensure enhanced consultancy support. The report also suggests that better training for all parties on the wider planning system would be beneficial.

Parker added that the planning white paper, Planning for the Future, the consultation for which closes tomorrow (29 October), sets up a new dynamic and lessons must be learnt from its proposed version of neighbourhood planning.

“Using forms of neighbourhood planning across topics where value can be added and across stages of the new planning process certainly merits our close attention. It would be a pity if the reformed system sidelined neighbourhood knowledge and energy into design alone.”

Impacts of Neighbourhood Planning in England can be found on the UK Government website.

Image credit | iStock

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