Perhaps one of the biggest policy objectives of the coalition Government, when they came to power over a year and a half ago, was the localism agenda. This was the attempt to give real power to communities and to strip away the centralising bureaucratic tendencies of government. It set up the tools for neighbourhood planning.
While significant progress has been made on the legislative front with the passing into law of the Localism Act last November there has yet, in my opinion, to be a similar degree of progress in providing the resources to implement these new powers at the local level.
Parish Councils up and down the country will be well aware of the opportunities that now exist, when regulations come into force later this year, to create a plan for their local area. The government has made it clear that this can’t just be a ‘nimby’s charter’ and the needs of the community in terms of housing, jobs and facilities has to be planned for. However, it now allows communities to be the authors of their own destiny.
Having provided the tools to start the job it seems there isn’t sufficient or skilled labour in place to get the job completed. Producing plans is a complex business especially when they need to be robust enough to stand up to potential developer and landowner challenge. Local councils have been downsizing their planning departments due to the squeeze on public sector finances and parish/town councils have not historically had the resources or need to employ planners. The government did set aside £50m to support the fledgling neighbourhood planning process and several waves of vanguard areas have been supported by a £20,000 grant. Four national organisations; the Prince’s Foundation, Royal Town Planning Institute, Locality and National Association of Local Councils (NALC) in partnerships with Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) were also funded to provide wider assistance and disseminate best practice and some excellent work has been achieved like CPRE/NALC’s booklet How to Shape Where You Live: A Guide to Neighbourhood Planning. Unfortunately this funding is coming to an end and the government has not decided whether to extend this support or if any further grants will be provided for individual localities through the vanguard scheme. Money still exists theoretically from the initial £50m but the government is, as yet, still silent on what support might follow.
Another problem that has faced the frontrunner areas has been the fact that the grant is paid to the Local Planning Authorities (District, Borough or Unitary Councils) and many have not passed these resources on to Parishes or Community Forums to do the work. They are retaining the majority to cover expenditure further down the line which will be incurred by the independent examination and referendum.
Colin Buchanan, national planning consultants, recently surveyed the frontrunners and found the biggest barrier to delivering the plans was the lack of resources generally, and specifically, the lack of detailed planning advice to guide areas through the process. It is fine for the government to expect a ‘big society’ response with volunteers popping out the woodwork to get the community engaged. However, in reality, a small amount of resource will be needed to properly project manage the process and to provide the necessary planning inputs at the appropriate time. Community engagement, even if done with a majority of voluntary support, can be a costly and time consuming endeavour.
For those areas that are now considering a Neighbourhood Plan and haven’t got funding through the vanguard scheme or don’t have a benevolent local authority willing to provide some resources it may be time to be proactive!
The Government is hoping to incentivise local areas to accept a degree of housing and commercial growth through the trickle down of some resources to the local level. In theory an element of the New Homes Bonus, a grant payable to the Borough/District Council for every new market and affordable home delivered as well as those brought back into use, could be made available to third tier authorities. It is also not clear what ‘meaningful proportion’ of funds should be returned to the Parish or community council in which receipts are generated for the Community Infrastructure Levy.
If greater responsibility and control is being passed to local communities to plan their areas then some of the resources to enable this should follow. Many councils will be using these resources to support existing services as the money is not ring-fenced and they are getting less general funding from Government. CIL funding won’t be available until schemes are approved within the North and West of the County which might take until 2013. In the meantime, parish councils undertaking plans need to start a dialogue with their Local Planning Authorities to identify what resources could be made available and how they can support the process moving forward.
Neighbourhood Plans are now a part of the planning landscape but in order for local communities to make them a reality, they will need to go out and get the resources to make this happen.
James Wilson Associates, a local planning and development consultancy, can provide a tailored service to assist in delivering Neighbourhood Plans. The government has placed Neighbourhood Planning at the heart of the planning system and the planning profession and local communities need to respond to this new challenge if local areas are going to proactively shape and change their environments for the future. James Wilson has been involved in planning within Northamptonshire for nearly 20 years and is working with a number of organisations to support Neighbourhood Planning. If you require further details or a non-committal chat please contact James on 07832 753197, email@example.com or www.jameswilsonassociates.co.uk.
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