Over the last five years a quiet revolution has got under way with the planning system. The Localism Act of 2011 has allowed parish councils, or just a collection of individuals, to produce Neighbourhood Development Plans. Provided the plans are legally valid, a local referendum is held to see if they win approval. By last December, 126 neighbourhood plan referendums had been held – all of which have been successful. Such neighbourhoods are able to receive 25 per cent of the revenues from the Community Infrastructure Levy that comes from the developments that they have chosen to accept.
There were some concerns that allowing greater community say over development would result in fewer homes being built. That the localist initiative would prove a “Nimbys’ Charter”. There are certainly still too few homes being built. However there are some encouraging signs of the supply being eased - in the year to March 2016, 265,000 homes were given planning permission, which is the highest figure on record.
Of course the relevant measure is not the overall tally but the comparison between Neighbourhood Plans and the Local Plans – which council planning officers come up with.
A report by the Department for Communities and Local Government showed some encouraging early signs. It only covered 16 areas so the sample is modest. However in those places they found that Neighbourhood Plans actually resulted in an increase in housing allocation – the number of new homes that the council agreed to approve over a period of 15 or 20 years. The Local Plan housing number was 8,185, while the Neighbourhood Plan housing number was 9,076. That’s 891 more – an extra 11 per cent. Thus if the community were able to have safeguards over where the homes would go, what they would look like, protecting green spaces, limiting traffic and so on, then they were willing to have more homes than would otherwise have been planned. The report also found figures that “appear to suggest that planning permissions are advancing rapidly.”
Wolverhampton has seen a Neighbourhood Plan developed for Heathfield Park. The number of new homes planned has risen from 460 to 585 as a result. The Prince’s Foundation held a workshop for them.
In Arundel in West Sussex the Local Plan only promised 50 new homes. The Neighbourhood Plan has pushed that up to 84.
Strumpshaw in Norfolk had no new homes planned. With the Neighbourhood Plan it is now due to have “ten homes and some new parish rooms.”
There are also case studies of areas not included in the DCLG. For example in Drayton, a village in Oxfordshire, there was “some alarm” about the possibility of farmland being made available for development. But there was also recognition of growing housing need – for instance for young people who wanted to buy or at least be able to move out from their parents’ homes but remain in the area. So the plan resolved to make a success of development. The design of new housing would “preserve the historic character of the village” – in other words – the new homes would be beautiful rather than the sort of structures favoured by planning officers.
Part of the process has certainly involved unwanted developments being rejected. If a property firm attempts to get permission for something that contravenes the Neighbourhood Plan then have found that their scheme is rejected, appealing to the Secretary of State will be to no avail. Quite right too. But generally builders have found it perfectly feasible to adapt and offer attractive schemes that meet the scale and location required by the existing community.
The process should continue to thrive. Brexit should help as EU rules are a burden for those producing Neighbourhood Plans. Also the Government is cracking down on local councils that are obstructive or cause delays.
“Trust the people” is an old Tory slogan. It is heartening that in the case of Neighbourhood Planning it seems to be working.