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Devo-mini as Pickles provides cash and support for neighbourhood plans

By: Vicky Sargent @vickysargent
Published: Friday, November 7, 2014 - 08:51 GMT Jump to Comments

While broadsheets and think tanks discuss future power shift to city regions, last week saw money being released right now to advance devolution at neighbourhood level.

Neighbourhood Planning, for those that have not been watching this space, was introduced by The Localism Act 2011. It enables communities in England to draw up a neighbourhood plan for their area and is intended to give communities more of a say in the development at a very local level, up to then decided and managed exclusively by local councils.

Emerging neighbourhood plans are starting to challenge local authority ideas about development at a very local level – that of parish, town or neighbourhood – and, as significantly, are beginning to impact on developers’ chances of getting planning permission for new housing schemes unpopular with the local community.

There are more than a thousand neighbourhood plans in preparation, and 33 plans have been approved. Boilerhouse Media has developed a map of them, based on a mix of Department of Communities and crowd-sourced data.

For a community to get a neighbourhood plan in place is quite a difficult and time-consuming process, requiring lots of volunteering, usually by retired solicitors, town planners and other professionals prepared to grapple with a lot of bureaucracy along the way. A couple of videos we made earlier this year explain some of the background.

Funding enables the engagement of people experienced in the process and the resources to support communities through its five key stages. One of these is a local referendum in which more than 50% of those voting need to support the plan in order for it to be brought into force by the local authority. So far, these referrendums have achieved a 100% success rate.

Funding, to the tune of £4.2m since 2013, has already been made available by the Department of Communities to around 700 local groups, but with momentum building strongly this year, all the 2014/15 allocation (distributed via Locality, DCLG’s contractor) had been used up by the end of August.

More funding, and a new support programme for neighbourhood planning, part of the Department’s Community Rights and Our Place activity, was not due to kick in until April 2015. But last Friday the Department announced the availability of a ‘bridging grant pot’ of £1m for groups that are ready to go now but have not yet benefited from the maximum £7000 available.

The move is welcomed by neighborhood planning consultant Tony Burton, who says it will help sustain the ‘phenomenal growth’ in neighbourhood planning while new long term funding arrangements are agreed.

Friday’s announcement detailed further funding beyond the year end, including £10.5m over 2015 to 2018 in grants to local communities - a 50% increase in the value of the existing support – as well as £100,000 to enable groups to organise workshops on neighbourhood planning in their local area, to give communities the information and encouragement needed to start on a neighbourhood plan.

Local planning authorities are being handed a £12 million funding pot to help them meet the cost of their responsibilities and to support local communities. They can claim up to £100,000 a year each to help their communities start a neighbourhood plan, with an additional £25,000 for each plan or order that passes an examination.

This may help overcome reluctance by local councils to share their powers and authority over planning with community groups, stories of which have been emerging through support groups and in social media. This was raised by Tony Burton in a piece for The Information Daily in July when he referred to evidence of ‘resistance from LPAs in the form of applications being ignored, or neighbourhood forums and parish councils being required to answer questions well above the requirements of the legislation.’

The new financial boost for neighbourhood planning is no surprise to those who have heard Eric Pickles waxing lyrical on the topic. It plays to a number of his favourite themes, not least that of supporting the ‘little guy’ and hyper-local democracy against Town Hall Officialdom.

Perhaps more significant than the new funding is the fact that in July the government announced that the Secretary of State could overturn planning appeals over residential schemes for as few as 10 units if a draft neighbourhood plan had been submitted in the area.

As the RIBA noted in a Practice Briefing in September, ‘emerging neighbourhood plans are suddenly playing a pivotal role in planning appeals decided by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles,’ noting that three appeal decisions in the previous week had hinged on his decision to increase the weight given to emerging neighbourhood plans.

These included his overturning a planning inspector’s decision to approve a 120 home scheme in Mid-Sussex, when the neighbourhood plan identifies housing allocations elsewhere, confirming another inspector’s decision, also in Mid-Sussex, to approve a 150 home greenfield scheme included in an emerging neighbourhood plan. In Malmesbury, Wiltshire, he overturned an inspector’s decision to approve a 77-home scheme ahead of a soon-to-be-completed neighbourhood plan that would test the views of local people on the sort of development they wanted to have.

The RIBA briefing quotes the Planning Officers Society warning that in future greater weight could be given to emerging neighbourhood plans at appeal than emerging local authority plans.

Only last week, Eric Pickles backed a decision by Wiltshire Council to deny planning permission for a new housing development in the town of Devizes, because it did not conform to the local neighbourhood plan.

According to Claire Perry, the town’s Conservative MP, the neighbourhood plan specified in much detail many other suitable sites for housing in Devizes. Writing on her website she said:

‘Much work had been done to identify the required land supply and appropriate building sites for badly needed housing in Wiltshire. The issue at stake here was a development proposal that delivered houses on a site not in the local plan, as opposed to building on many more suitable sites.’

Pickles decision, writes Perry, is ‘a triumph for localism,’ continuing ‘We still need to build houses but these should be built where local people want them and that is exactly what the local plan is designed to do. I do urge every community to develop their local plans…we finally have the ability to shape the way our communities grow; it’s official and Eric Pickles agrees!’

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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