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  • 14 Jan 2011
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Legal update: Localism Bill explained

By Michael Hardware of  Chelgate, public relations and public affairs consultants

Following much speculation as to its content, the Decentralisation and Localism Bill was finally introduced to the House of Commons in December. It has a number of provisions which will impact on the planning and development communities.

The Bill confirmed the abolition of regional spatial strategies, which had been long previewed and came as no surprise.

It introduced the concept of ‘neighbourhood plans’, an alternative approach to ‘top-down’ planning where the emphasis on planning policy is moved closer to the people to be affected. The implications and outcome of this new approach are, as yet, uncertain. However, the experiences of the 12 ‘vanguard’ communities about to be selected to go through the process of developing a neighbourhood plan may give an insight of what is to come for other communities in the future.

In essence, any community will be able to come together to draft a neighbourhood plan, and the planning authority will be obliged to assist. This is likely to follow parish or neighbourhood forums, but councils will have to assist with defining exact planning boundaries where necessary.

The community can then decide where it would like to see new homes, shops and offices, and decide what green open spaces it would like to protect. Once it has the approval of the community, the planning authority will be obliged to adopt the plan (subject to some conditions and qualifications). 

This potentially signals the death-knell for the historic way planning permissions for development are secured, and ushers in the need for those seeking consent to adopt new practices around stakeholder engagement, community consultation and even local referenda.

The plans are likely to be popular with politicians: on the one hand, the decision-making process (particularly on controversial developments) will be taken out of their hands and put into the hands of the local community. On the other hand, ward councillors will be able to do what they were elected to do – represent their communities without being restricted by law or planning policy.

The ‘carrots’ being dangled by government are quite enticing. Ministers have made it clear that a large proportion of the New Homes Bonus monies and the Community Infrastructure Levy will go to the neighbourhood where development takes place, in addition to S106 agreement monies. This is a double-edged sword, as the general council ‘pot’ will subsequently be reduced, which means neighbourhoods without plans will not see the same level of spending, and so will suffer.

This could all be part of the government's objective, of course, as those neighbourhoods will then be motivated to go along the same path so they don’t miss out on the financial benefits.

What impact this is going to have on the local authority’s planning strategies and wider plans is as yet unclear, but it has the potential to be radical. However, based upon the usual level of local community involvement in council affairs, and planning, there will perhaps not be a rush to create new neighbourhood plans.

While this new planning process could potentially be hijacked by those fundamentally opposed to a development, it is more likely that developers will use the process to try and get a consensus agreement within the community for a project, which is exactly what the government wants to happen. The shift of emphasis for those seeking planning permission will therefore be to focus on engaging with the local community.

Communities will certainly not feel isolated by the process, as they are now. There will be a statutory obligation on developers to consult prior to the application being made, to demonstrate that consultation has taken place, and to show that the wishes of the community have been listened to and the plans adapted accordingly.

The Bill will also reverse the absurd situation whereby councillors have been prevented from voicing opinions or acting on local issues for fear of being considered biased and unable to participate in a vote at committee. It now allows councillors to do what they were elected to do: represent their communities.

This will enable developers and planners to seek understanding, and gain feedback, from local councillors during the project conception and following submission of the application.

Summary

Community empowerment: The Bill enables residents, councillors or councils to call a local referendum on any issue. Although the results are not binding, the council and other bodies have to take the outcome into consideration when making decisions.

Planning: The Bill abolishes regional strategies and housing targets, leaving it up to local authorities and communities what they wish to build, and introduces the new concept of ‘neighbourhood plans’. There are financial incentives to make this all happen in the form of the New Homes Bonus and the Community Infrastructure Levy, a large proportion of which will have to be spent in the neighbourhood where the development takes place.

The bill also introduces compulsory pre-application consultation, and a requirement to demonstrate that note has been taken of those consultations.

Vanguard communities: On December 8, ministers announced that they are looking for 12 vanguard communities to volunteer to trial neighbourhood plans in their area. The experience of these vanguards will help ensure the legislation is workable when it comes into force. Expressions of interest are required by February 2011.

Predetermination: The Bill clarifies the situation whereby councillors have been prevented from voicing opinions for fear of being considered biased and thereby unable to participate in a vote at committee. This enables developers and planners to get feedback, from local councillors during the project conception and following submission of the application.

Infrastructure Planning Commission: The bill abolishes this body.

 

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