There is little doubt that when it eventually becomes law, the Localism Bill will fundamentally change the face of spatial planning. The removal of ‘top down’ regional planning and the introduction of new frameworks at the local level will set up a range of new policy opportunities and tensions. I will not dwell on the political aspects of this change, but I would like to focus on the underlying principles that might benefit any spatial planning framework and consider how the current revisions might be used to help local areas arrive at arrangements that suit their needs.
In his speech to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation set out a clear summary of the government’s aspirations for neighbourhood planning. He said that the need for change was because the current system is an impediment to housing growth, has a negative impact on the economy because of the poor provision of infrastructure, and is a source of tension because it fails to recognise people’s real aspirations for their area and leads to assumptions against development, even where that development might be positive. The government envisages that planners should work with communities more and be less constrained by national plans and policies. Once agreed, local plans (based on the current Local Development Frameworks) would set out where development will be presumed, and the development control framework would evolve to be less onerous. This would be set within a new, much condensed, national planning policy framework, replacing the current planning policy statements (PPSs). Neighbourhood plans would be developed within this framework and providing local focus on decisions rather than being a means to block local or national, planning policies, infrastructure or housing developments. Parishes and neighbourhood forums will have a natural role to play in developing and agreeing local planning principles and the government is promising support to local councils to help develop neighbourhood planning in their areas.
It’s my view that the underlying principles, which guide the operation of a spatial planning framework, should relate to identifying and delivering the common good. Whether it is where to put public amenities that might be welcomed, such as a new hospital, possibly contentious housing development, or definitely controversial infrastructure such as a motorway, a mechanism is needed to secure the best option. Clearly the number of people that might be affected in such decisions is significant and careful balancing is needed to establish exactly what the common good is. Such proposals are outside the scope of the proposals for neighbourhood planning, and the stronger requirement to engage with people, envisaged by the Localism Bill, is good in its intentions.
However there are thousands of much smaller planning decisions made each year where many fewer people are affected. The policy framework which governs them, the local plan or local development framework, is designed to reflect the needs of a significant area, typically 150,000-200,000 people. Yet it is used as the basis for considering proposals such as for a dormer window, an extension or a porch that will fundamentally affect fewer than 100 people.
At the local level it is often these smaller decisions that matter, but the planning framework is on such a big scale that communities are unable to decide for themselves what their local definition of common good might be. Also, the process of policy determination is so onerous that decades can pass between amendments. Just think of the changes that there have been in approaches to sustainability, or levels of traffic, or urban design over the last ten years and what communities might be able to plan for if they were enabled to do so.
So whilst there is some alarm in planning circles at the speed of change and the potential requirements of the Localism Bill, I welcome much of the localist intent and recognise the need to ensure decisions are taken at the right level (1). However I have some questions about the implementation and am concerned about the unforeseen policy consequences that might arise. I would like to set out five issues to resolve:
The first of these relates to the proposal to identify neighbourhood forums or use current parish structures as the basis for new Neighbourhood Development Plans and potential Neighbourhood Orders. I have no problem in principle with this proposal, however I am concerned about the differing capacity of Parish Councils to engage with this framework. In my previous role I had contact with 42 parish councils covering populations ranging from 500 to 30,000 and we started working with them on Parish Plans, which were very useful documents. However the ability to make the most of these varied widely and there will need to be considerable work done to assist clerks and elected members to work with their community to make the best of this opportunity.
Turning to my current role, we have fewer parish councils but the question on capacity will still remain. However an even bigger question will hang over the best way to identify neighbourhood forums for the area that is not covered by a parish council. The challenge for all of us working with either scenario will be to help local communities to develop their community planning capacity without creating some awfully turgid process or unnecessary bureaucracy. It is interesting that the Royal Town Planning Institute’s position on this is that the organisation should at least be one with some form of charitable trust status, which immediately places a level of accountability (as well as bureaucratic burden) albeit without a democratically accountable base. The use of new technologies to do this will be critical.
Thirdly, linked to the above, how important is it that there is a democratic mandate for neighbourhood forums? Many parish councils have no tradition of elections for office, many also have a non-party political culture. This is a pretty consistent phenomenon which is not just a result of modern single issue politics, for example work undertaken to evaluate the workings of community councils in the 1970s and 1980s concluded that there was a tendency away from electoral competition towards unopposed nomination to discursive neighbourhood forums (2). It will be important to consider locally what the best framework is and whether there might be a tendency within the larger Parish Councils to simply start recreating mini planning departments, rather than imagining a totally new 21st century form of engagement with local planning and development decisions.
Fourthly, it will be important to agree on what constitutes a competent neighbourhood plan, and just as importantly, who it is that decides this. What scale should this be on? Can they be nested? For example could a smaller neighbourhood within a large parish area legitimately lay claim to writing its own chapter? How are the criteria passed between this and the Local Development Framework? What advice will be needed, and what must be heeded, from the overarching planning authority? How would non spatial policies, such as conservation policies, translate between the two?
Finally, there is the issue of timing. On the assumption that all this is enacted in the next twelve months there will be a real need for local authorities to help provide leadership and strategic grip in facilitating the development of the relevant local forums, working with local community leaders, elected members, community activists and parish clerks to develop local planning frameworks that make sense and avoid needless bureaucracy.
I think there is the opportunity that in the long run this could shake down into a framework where decisions are devolved to a sensible level, and all levels have a say in consultations and policies. Why should a decision about a dormer window need to be made by anyone other than people who can see it from their homes. Why should a housing infill decision be made by anyone outside an immediate neighbourhood? Why should a larger housing or retail development decision not be made by the town in which it is to be placed? And for the larger decisions, made at a more strategic level and which may feel imposed, why should people not have a say in the planning conditions or infrastructure required of the developer?
How should current planning authorities react to all of this? Well as a localist quite a lot of what is emerging seems to make sense to me, it’s just a question of putting in place a sensible framework. Or is it quite that simple? It is clear that Parish Councils or something like them are key what is envisaged. Yet a slightly puzzling spanner was thrown into the works by Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing, a couple of weeks ago, when he called for the abolition of his local parish council on the grounds that it is an extra level of bureaucracy and taxation. There will be a real need for parish councils, like all other parts of the public sector, to prove their value in the future if such challenges are to be rebuffed. Secondly, we’re pretty much ready to get on with a lot of the work on this, obviously welcoming government assistance with some of the initial extra costs, but are very concerned about the amount of guidance coming out of CLG. It’s well meaning but not always very helpful, and there is an awful lot of it.
The proposals in the localism bill provide an opportunity not only to focus on the obvious spatial planning needs of a locality, but also to link these closely to community aspirations which relate to the diversity of modern communities. This could be neighbourhood solutions relating to meeting the needs of extended families or single person households, housing and infrastructure that adapts with the aging population or the development of truly sustainable planning policy that adapts to conservation areas or modifies developments currently based on the car towards greener forms of transport. However we will need to be careful not to make an already complex system more complicated and must find a way to develop the underlying processes in order to secure public value and deliver solutions that are for the common good. The acid test will be whether once this system is constituted, everyone has the confidence to deal with the devolution of not just easy decisions, but difficult ones too.
1 See ‘Supporting Communities and Neighbourhoods in Planning – Prospectus’ DCLG January 2011 which has a useful appendix.
2 See Masterson et al, University of Dundee, various articles and papers in Local Government Studies late 1970s early 1980s