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Q&A: Neighbourhood planning

Neighbourhood planning

During our recent neighbourhood planning webinar, we received dozens of questions from listeners. Planning consultant and neighbourhood plan examiner Liz Beth of LB Planning kindly answered a selection.

If you missed it first time around, you can listen to the webinar on demand.

Q. If site allocations are devolved entirely to neighbourhood plans what is preventing vested interests allocating land for 'pecuniary' reasons? Philip Godwin

A. The recent guidance in the NPPG for the need to do a criteria-based site assessment helps greatly with this. A dodgy process will not pass examination, or the local planning authority (LPA), which has a right to reject a plan whatever the examiner says.

"Some plans that need a lot of revision at examination, and if an LPA can suggest improvements to wording that is great"

Q. Are you concerned about the quality of some neighbourhood plans and that examiners often have to recommend extensive changes so that policies can be effective such that made plans may not read in the way the qualifying body intended? Should LPAs help more to improve the quality of plans before submission? Julian Jackson

A. There are some plans that need a lot of revision at examination, and if an LPA can suggest improvements to wording that is great. It is another reason why I feel groups need their 'tame planner' though. They will listen to someone working for them when they may not pay heed to a LPA planner.

Q. Is it possible for a neighbourhood plan within the green belt to allocate more land for development than what the LPA’s local plan is proposing? Daniel Robinson

A. A neighbourhood plan can't allocate land in the green belt, as this would be contrary to existing adopted strategic policy. However, I did see a clever neighbourhood plan that had a policy setting out how they would like an allocation in the green belt should the LPA be so minded in their forthcoming plan! That was Little Aston in Lichfield.

Q. Without a five-year housing land supply, neighbourhood plan and local plan policies can be overruled via the NPPF. Can a neighbourhood plan be delivered faster and more robustly than an LPA’s site allocations? Kieran Highman

A. Yes, a neighbourhood plan will normally be delivered faster than a site allocations document. The process is simpler. To date, a positive made neighbourhood plan with allocations has often had secretary of state approval, despite an up to date five-year supply in the wider LPA area. There are no guarantees this will continue, of course.

"Communities should only embark on the neighbourhood planning route if it is clear what they are going to get out of it"

Q. I do a lot of work in the South Downs National Park area, and I would certainly agree that the model seems most effective outside of major cities, in places where settlements are more easily defined. I would be interested to know your thoughts on whether some communities are preparing neighbourhood planss when, due to the limited development in the pipeline or possible under LPA policies, they would be better off preparing a village design statement. Jody Slater

A. You are right to suggest that communities should only embark on the neighbourhood planning route if it is clear what they are going to get out of it.  The issue with a village design statement is that it is not part of the development plan, but a neighbourhood plan is. A neighbourhood plan with a policy requiring compliance with the village design statement will strengthen this, therefore.

Q. What are the extra challenges in urban areas? What makes neighbourhood planning more successful in rural areas? Alanna Reid

A. Firstly, most urban areas need to set up a forum with support from a minimum of 21 people, across a range of stakeholders. That forum needs to remain together and focused on the task, and the task is much more complex in planning terms and normally not a well-defined, discrete area.

Q. Liz mentioned that the process could be made better for inner urban and deprived areas. What could these improvements consist of? David Cross

A. I think, like the Bristol example, any way an urban authority can provide a democratic framework for smaller areas helps. The group probably also need to focus on the key areas, rather than trying to do a mini-local plan.

Q. Liz talked about neighbourhood planning being a form of direct democracy. But is it really any type of democracy? In my experience neighbourhood planning groups tend to be made up of the vocal minority rather than the silent majority and are not representative of a cross-section of society – in particular, in terms of age, race and sometimes even gender. Overwhelmingly neighbourhood plans are originally initiated to seek to prevent development (normally housing developments) rather than assist with bringing more development forward. Stephen Litherland

A. In my experience most groups are interested in engaging wider – they have the need to pass a referendum as well to promote this. The core group will often be the vocal minority, but it was ever thus. The issue is to work on getting at least the message, and perhaps some of the action to spread wider. A negative neighbourhood plan is not going to cut it with an examiner.

"Neighbourhood planning is decentralisation in action"

Q. To what extent is neighbourhood planning truly representative of decentralisation when government has removed so many powers from the planning system, many to ensure power remains at the centre (permitted development, permission in principle, secretary of state powers to intervene, etc)? Alister Scott

A. Neighbourhood planning is decentralisation in action, but I agree with you that it is increasingly operating in an centralising environment. My question for a centralising government that is also looking for big cuts in expenditure is 'Hey guys, you know these new powers you claim; who exactly is going to be left to do the leg work?'

Q. Does neighbourhood planning exclude generation rent, who by definition move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood? Will we see a growing problem of localism dividing the property-owners with a voice, from the young renting voiceless who are the most desperate for local plans that address housing? Sarah Lee

A. I'd suggest that the housing crisis is primarily an economic issue, not a planning one, and until it is accepted that society needs to provide a base of decent social housing, the economic issues are not going away. Having said that, with nearly every neighbourhood plan I have worked on, the group has wanted to provide affordable housing. If they can afford the housing, their kids often can't!

Q. Are  planners  the best people to develop neighbourhood plans? We are certainly the right people to advise on policies and land use, but in my experience this is not what communities always want. Communities seem most engaged where they can develop projects that benefit them rather than produce planning documents. If planning is a means to an end that helps shape a place, getting the key local issues that define that place to the fore is not always a skill set that planners have. In the areas where I work community-led plans provide the best foundation for a neighbourhood plan, and community development officers provide the right skill set. However, turning their ideas into land use policies is where we are needed. Writing good and effective policies is critical and  professional planners should be engaged from the outset. Should we lead though? David Potter

A. I'd agree with your assessment of the planning role. I had hoped to indicate that with the phrase 'tame planner', ie a planner who is working for the qualifying body, and advising them, but leaving the decisions to them. I have also found groups wanting to focus on projects - and these can feature as an annex to a NP.

Read a report of the webinar

Listen to the webinar on demand


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