Localism can take different forms. One is a power shift from Whitehall to local government. Another can be a further decentralisation from town halls to local communities. Given the imperative of increasing the housing supply one of the more interesting initiatives of recent years has been allowing groups of residents to set up Neighbourhood Development plans – which if they are then passed by a referendum can establish the planning policy for a local area. The deal has been for existing residents that if they agree to accept the same number of new homes scheduled, they can take control of where they go and what they look like.
Last year I wrote about the tentative initial evidence that they are actually agreeing to 11 per cent more new homes than the allocation that the local authority had agreed to. That is still being maintained. That amounts to 13,200 new homes – 1,400 more than planned under the local authority plans.
The Department for Communities and Local Government adds:
“Residents are directly able to decide what type of development is needed, where it should go and what it should look like.
“More than 1,900 areas are currently drawing up draft plans, covering 8.6 million people.
“Following successful local referendums, 270 of these plans have now be put in place by local planning authorities across England. On average, around 9 out 10 people voting backed the plans.”
It is not perfect. These neighbourhood plans should be given more power – and often they don’t even use the power they could do. Sometimes they are written by retired planners and that can be reflected in their content. But gradually the potential this mechanism provides for beautiful new homes is becoming more widely understood.
Also London is falling behind – as a recent report noted:
“In London, with just one “parish” council (Queens Park) neighbourhood planning is an activity that relies largely on local communities taking the initiative and establishing neighbourhood forums. Local planning authorities can take a proactive or purely reactive role, in terms of their ‘duty of support’ to neighbourhood planning. In either case, the quality of information communicated by local planning authorities, in their Local Plans and in other documents and on their websites, will have some impact on levels of awareness and understanding of neighbourhood planning amongst the public.”
“Only five neighbourhood plans in London have reached referendum stage by the end of 2016. The number of referendums held across England is now over 300. In terms of the take up of this part of the planning system per head of population, London remains under-represented. It is widely accepted that there are some London factors (not least the absence of parish councils and the need to establish a neighbourhood forum) which have added to the challenges of neighbourhood plan preparation.”
This comes as no surprise. But it is still a great pity. It is particularly in London where more housing is in great demand – and where the planners’ prevailing preference for ugliness is also the greatest obstacle to achieving consent for it.