by Ed Dade
Posted on April 11, 2019
Whilst Neighbourhood Plans are a powerful tool for shaping how a community will grow, they are not the only option.
This post explores the questions you should ask before deciding if a Neighbourhood Plan is right for your area, and discusses some alternative ways to participate in the planning process.
Neighbourhood Plans have been around for some time now, and most Parish & Town Councils will at some point have asked themselves whether they should prepare a Neighbourhood Plan. To answer this question, it is necessary to consider whether a Neighbourhood Plan is the right 'tool' for the job - crucially:
What does the community want to achieve, and is a Neighbourhood Plan the best way of delivering this?
You may not know what local people think are the biggest issues affecting their area. It is a good idea to carry out some community engagement exercises to find out what issues are affecting local people and how they would like to see the area improve.
Once you have an understanding of the issues affecting your area, you will be far better placed to decide if a Neighbourhood Plan is right for your area - or if some alternative approach or response is more suitable.
Neighbourhood Plans must follow a strict legal process. They require the input of a good deal of time and resources - even the most organised and motivated parish council will probably take roughly two years to write a Neighbourhood Plan.
Neighbourhood Plans are normally prepared by groups of volunteers who give up their time to write the plan. In addition, there are costs involved relating to printing, organising consultation events and often technical support from planning consultants - fortunately the government offers grant funding to neighbourhood planning groups.
Neighbourhood Plans operate within some very strict parameters. They must be about planning issues only, and therefore may not address broader community aspirations. Crucially, the plan must achieve 'general conformity' with the strategic policies of the Development Plan, which for some communities can be difficult to accept.
Explore possible alternative options available to communities to enable them to engage in the planning process.
Every planning application is subject to a period of consultation and Parish & Town Councils are routinely invited to comment on planning applications in their area. Most Parish & Town Councils hold a Planning Committee to enable development proposals to be discussed in an open forum, and formulate a response.
Individuals and other groups can also respond in writing to consultations on planning applications. Details of current consultations on planning applications are usually published in local newspapers, on the local planning authority's (LPA) website, and a Site Notice will normally be placed on the nearest lamp-post to the proposed site.
Many Local Planning Authorities, planning consultants, and organisations offer training and advice on how to effectively engage in the planning application process.
It is good practice for developers to carry out community engagement prior to submitting a planning application. Parish & Town Councils can actively encourage applicants to undertake such engagement. For example, Parish & Town Councils could invite applicants to present their proposals at public meetings, facilitate workshops with local people, or provide an exhibition space in the town hall to display information about proposals.
Parish & Town Councils and other groups, either independently or in collaboration with the LPA, prepare guidance and evidence to inform planning applications and influence planning decisions.
Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) relate directly to one or more policies contained in the Local Plan. Typically, SPDs provide guidance for applicants and explain how planning policies will be applied. SPDs should not place excessive burdens on applicants.
For example, a 'Design' SPD might explain how new development should be designed, including the size, scale and form of development, and may provide examples of building materials which should be used in an area.
On the matter of design, Parish & Town Councils can prepare a 'Village Design Statement' (VDS) which describes the main characteristics of the design of built development in the locality. The VDS should can set out guidance to inform the preparation of planning applications. Where preparing a VDS, Parish & Town Councils should discuss this with the LPA. The main goal should be to get the LPA (the district or borough council or unitary authority) to formally adopt the VDS as a Supplementary Planning Document.
The 'evidence base' is a collection of technical documents and studies which inform the preparation of planning documents or determination of planning applications.
Evidence documents can relate to a wide range of planning issues, for example demographics, housing, employment, retail and environmental issues.
Communities can prepare or commission their own evidence, which can influence the LPA's decisions on planning applications. For example, some Parish & Town Councils have commissioned a Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) of their parish area. The LCA describes the local landscape and provides guidance for applicants. Some LPAs have been known to apply the findings of LCAs commissioned by Parish & Town Councils when determining planning applications.
Evidence can be prepared by local people, and does not necessarily require the involvement of experts. One idea could be to regularly undertake a 'health-check' of your local high street or town centre to see how well it is performing, what types of uses it contains, and how many buildings are vacant.
Parish & Town Councils can produce a 'Parish Plan'. This type of non-statutory plan pre-dates Neighbourhood Plans, but do not carry the same 'weight' in decision-making as they do not set out planning policies.
A key purpose of a Parish Plans is to influence the planning process, and they can inform and guide development in a similar way to SPDs and VDSs - they are a 'material consideration'. Some LPAs may formally adopt Parish Plans as SPDs.
Parish Plans are not subject to the same constraints or tests as Neighbourhood Plans. For example, Parish Plans have a wider scope than Neighbourhood Plans - they can address a wider range of issues affecting the community, rather than be just about planning.
Similarly to Neighbourhood Plans, Parish Plans should be informed by community engagement and should reflect the local community's vision and aspirations for how the area will grow in the future.
Conservation areas are designated for the purpose of managing and protecting the special architectural and historic interest of a place. According to Historic England, every LPA has at least one Conservation Area, and there are now more than 10,000 in England.
Conservation Area Appraisal & Management Plans identify the key characteristics of designated conservation areas. Communities can get involved in the preparation or review of Conservation Area Appraisal & Management Plans.
Many LPAs maintain a 'local list' of buildings or structures which are of local historic importance or architectural merit, but which do not necessarily qualify for designation as 'listed buildings'. Buildings or structures on the 'local list' usually benefit from additional protection through the planning process.
Communities can identify locally important buildings and structures and request the LPA place them on the local list.
In addition, Parish & Town Councils (or other groups) could, with the help of the LPA's Conservation Officer, apply for local buildings of special interest to be nationally listed by the Secretary of State.
An Article 4 direction removes certain permitted development rights in an area. This means that, where an Article 4 direction is in place, a planning application will be required for certain developments which might ordinarily not require a planning application.
For example, an Article 4 direction could require a planning application for replacing windows in a given area. This would normally be used to protect the historic character of the area, requiring 'traditional' style windows, rather than modern materials and styles, such as uPVC.
Other examples of Article 4 directions include the removal of permitted development rights for the change of family homes to Houses in Multiple Occupation.
Article 4 directions can be contentious, as it will mean people will need to apply for planning permission for things they might ordinarily expect to be able to do without submitting a planning application.
For this reason, Article 4 directions are generally used sparingly. However, a local authority may be more likely to set an Article 4 Direction, where it is the community's idea, and there is clear community support for it. Parish & Town Councils (or other community groups) therefore play an important role in demonstrating that an Article 4 direction is both needed and wanted by the community.
Neighbourhood Development Orders, Community Right to Build Orders and Local Development Orders grant planning permission for very specific types of development in a particular area.
Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders were introduced by the Localism Act, alongside Neighbourhood Plans.
Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs) are prepared by Parish & Town Councils or a Neighbourhood Forum and follow a similar process to Neighbourhood Plans - they are informed by consultation with the community and are subject to a process of independent examination and referendum.
NDOs grant planning permission for a certain type of development, enabling the development to be built without the need to submit a planning application and obtain planning permission. For example, NDOs could be used to grant planning permission for the development of housing, employment units or a local facility such as a shop, in a specific location.
A Community Right to Build Order (CRtBO) is similar to a NDO, but can be prepared by other community organisations - not just Parish & Town Councils and Neighbourhood Forums. Profits made as a result of the development should be used for the benefit of the community.
Similarly, Local Development Orders (LDOs) provide planning permission for specific classes of development within a defined area, but are prepared by the LPA. Similarly to Local Plans, there may be opportunities to collaborate with the LPA in preparing an LDO.
Community groups should be mindful that to produce these 'development orders', the community organisation preparing the document will need to take on work (and likely incur costs) ordinarily met by the applicant - for example, in undertaking technical studies to demonstrate such a development is appropriate in planning terms. However, such options may be especially beneficial where the Parish & Town Council, Neighbourhood Forum or other community organisation is the developer.
Availability of affordable housing is a common concern for many communities. One established method to tackle this is through local people establishing a not-for-profit organisation called a 'Community Land Trust', often referred to as a 'CLT'.
CLTs can build and manage new affordable housing and other assets. CLTs act as long-term stewards of housing, ensuring that it remains genuinely affordable in perpetuity.
The overwhelming strength of Neighbourhood Plans is that, once complete, they form part of the development plan for the area. Planning applications are judged against their policies, meaning Neighbourhood Plans directly influences how an area will grow over time.
As a direct alternative to writing a Neighbourhood Plan, collaborating with the LPA to ensure the policies of the Local Plan reflect the views of your community would, in theory, be of equal status.
This approach would likely be less resource-intensive than writing a Neighbourhood Plan. However, the Local Plan process is notoriously lengthy and your LPA will, at best, review its Local Plan once every five years. You can check the progress of Local Plans using my Local Plan checker.
Strictly speaking, a Neighbourhood Plan should only deal with planning issues, taking effect when determining planning applications and making planning decisions - although it is not uncommon to see references to other community projects and aspirations in Neighbourhood Plans.
Non-statutory plans, such as Parish Plans can address a wider range of issues and therefore may be more project-focused - for example identifying community projects and initiatives to be delivered by the Parish Council, local organisations and service providers.
Parish Plans are not bound by the same parameters as Neighbourhood Plans (for example, they do not need to comply with the basic conditions) and do not follow the same stringent process - a parish plan does not need to be examined or subject to referendum. Parish Plans remain a good option for those who want to think more broadly about the issues affecting their community, and also for groups who do not want to follow the Neighbourhood Plan process.
Neighbourhood Plans can identify sites for development and set requirements for what the development should be like. However, this does not guarantee that the development will actually take place. Neighbourhood Development Orders, Community Right to Build Orders and Local Development Orders effectively grant planning permission for a specific type of development, which could mean that development is more likely to be delivered.
Rather than simply planning for development, communities could deliver new development themselves. One established model is to set up a Community Land Trust to deliver affordable housing for the benefit of local people.
There are a range of options available to communities. Choosing the best option should be informed by a clear understanding of the community's views and aspirations.
In this post, I've focused on established methods which are embedded in the planning system. I've intentionally not covered some of the more radical methods, such as protesting, petitions and lobbying - although these are options, their degree of success will likely vary significantly from case to case.
Neighbourhood Plans are important as, once made, form part of the Development Plan for the area, meaning they have considerable influence over development which can take place in an area. However, there is a time and a place for all of the options discussed in this post.