Government is stepping up its already evangelical support for neighbourhood planning – and other ‘community rights’ – with the release last week of £22 million funding to support communities in their planning endeavours.
Neighbourhood plans: go forth and multiply
This preceded a ‘National Neighbourhood Planning Summit’ at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, on Monday, that was addressed by Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis, Minister for Communities Stephen Williams and Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin – demonstrating the cross-sectoral importance Government attaches to neighbourhood planning – along with a host of neighbourhood planning advocates and actual grassroots neighbourhood planners themselves. Yes, real people.
CPRE have always been enthusiastic proponents of neighbourhood planning: planning that genuinely puts local people in charge of the development that happens in their areas, not merely as people who are consulted on planning proposals, but as the people who set the policy context for their community, make decisions on proposals, and take part in turning plans into reality. We worked with the National Association of Local Councils to produce early guidance on neighbourhood planning processes, funded by the Government’s ‘Supporting Communities and Neighbourhoods in Planning’ programme.
Monday’s ‘summit’ was less an exchange of views or resolution of issues, and more a ‘love-in’ for neighbourhood planning enthusiasts to extol its virtues and celebrate the success of this “quiet revolution” (Stephen Williams’ apposite words). Only Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert valiantly sounded a note of caution with regard to the apparent tendency of certain developers to target communities in the early stages of preparing a plan with speculative greenfield development proposals – an issue that we at CPRE are seriously concerned that Government should address.
But let us be clear: despite some of the rhetoric that preceded it, the neighbourhood planning measures enabled through the Localism Act do not, and were never intended to, empower communities to arbitrarily block development that they don't want imposed on them.
And rightly so. Communities of all sizes need some development, and planning, at whatever scale, from neighbourhood to national, provides the context within which development needs are assessed and prioritised, opportunities identified, and solutions realised on the ground.
Neighbourhood planning is sold to communities on the basis that it empowers them to plan for and/or deliver the development they do want in the way that they want it, and planning proactively to meet – and deliver on – local development needs is a powerful tool in staving off speculative planning applications.
But it also enables communities to help manage the development that they might not necessarily feel they want, but is still needed, in ways that work better locally.
Having a very clear understanding of the character of an area, including identifying those parts of it that the community most cherishes, is essential in managing development locally. From a distinctly CPRE perspective, we would recommend using neighbourhood plans to:
- define and describe the character and significance of local landscapes – we are planning to update our guidance on local landscape character to make it more relevant to neighbourhood plans, and
- designate ‘local green space’ – a new planning designation introduced in the National Planning Policy Framework that can have a similar effect to Green Belt.
Our analysis of neighbourhood plans that had come into force towards the end of 2014 showed that landscape, transport and design were key issues of importance to CPRE members that were reflected in policies in neighbourhood plans. While it is still too early to say how effective these policies have been for the communities that made them, it shows what is possible when communities pull together. And the National Summit this week emphasised how simply working on a neighbourhood plan has invigorated communities across the country, building new relationships and getting all kinds of community movements going.
This year we hope to revive and expand our support for CPRE branches engaging in Neighbourhood Planning - so watch this space - but we encourage branches and members to get involved in their local area – or even make a start. After all, there’s £22 million up for grabs.
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