The long-awaited Localism Bill has finally arrived. Despite the abandonment of the word ’decentralisation’ from the bill’s title, the 577-page document has lived up to expectations in its aims for a groundbreaking shift of power from Westminster to the people.
The Government’s commitment to its Big Society agenda is best seen in the bill’s proposals to radically change the planning system. The bill introduces the concept of neighbourhood planning, hailed by the Government as a “right for communities to shape their local areas”.
Regional planning policy is to be swept away, causing much controversy in the development industry, particularly from developers promoting schemes that depend on policies in a regional spatial strategy. The absence of regional policy, coupled with Government promises to curtail national planning policy, will leave a policy vacuum at both the national and regional levels. Instead, planning policy will be strengthened at the local level with the introduction of a new style of planning policy document – neighbourhood plans – which will form, according to the Government, the “new building blocks of the planning system”.
In addition, for the first time, local communities, in the form of parish councils or alternatively designated neighbourhood forums comprising at least three local residents, can request
that their council makes a neighbourhood development order (NDO).
An NDO will have the effect of granting planning permission for a development or type of development in their neighbourhood. Similarly, the bill enshrines the much-publicised community right to build by allowing groups to promote a limited form of NDO. In both cases, the local council must make the order if at least 51 per cent of voters in a referendum support it.
Other planning provisions in the bill are clearly skewed in favour of the community. Developers will be under a legal duty to consult the community before submitting their planning application. Furthermore, there will be a duty on developers to have regard to consultation responses. Although this will make the consultation process more meaningful, it will no doubt place a heavy burden on developers.
At first glance, the planning provisions certainly seem to empower local communities to play an active part in the planning of their area. However, a trawl through the schedules of the bill dealing with neighbourhood planning reveals a convoluted process that must be followed.
For example, the draft NDO must be submitted to the secretary of state for examination before it is made. This begs the question of whether forming a community group and requesting the local council to initiate the NDO process is a more streamlined process than applying for planning permission in the usual way.
The more fundamental question is whether the aims behind the neighbourhood planning provisions will be realised. The bill envisages a world where communities pull together to play a part in the planning system, preparing plans, responding to consultations and promoting development. The reality, as many developers know, is different.
The provisions ignore the ’Nimby’ effect. Communities want to engage with the planning system only when they have to, and that usually means opposing, rather than promoting, development in their localities.
If the bill is passed, it will be interesting to see how many NDOs are made. How many neighbourhood plans will promote a substantial amount of new housing? One questions whether power to the people will result in the level of development the economy badly needs.