First impressions: A year examining Neighbourhood Plans

Posted on 27 March 2017 (Permalink)

Lee Armitage, Director and Co-founder of Intelligent Plans and examinations (IPe), discusses the IPe Examiner Team’s first impressions from a year of examining neighbourhood plans.

We entered neighbourhood planning with a general perception that the pace was gathering gradually, but we have been astonished at the very real momentum in the last 12 months. Over 350 plans have completed examination since 2012, which exceeds the number of up to date adopted local plans.

That brings us rather abruptly to the most apparent tension we have experienced in undertaking examinations. One of the legal tests (collectively known as the ‘Basic Conditions’) against which neighbourhood plans are assessed is the requirement that the neighbourhood plan is in general conformity with the strategic policies in the adopted local plan for the area. This assumes that all local authorities will have an up to date local plan in place, which is not yet the case, albeit good progress is being made.

In circumstances where an authority has not recently updated its local plan, and particularly if it was adopted before the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published in 2012, it is essential, in practical terms, to ensure that your neighbourhood plan also aligns with any emerging new local plan, especially where it is well advanced. Should the new local plan be adopted after your neighbourhood plan has come into force (been ‘made’), where there is a conflict between a policy in your neighbourhood plan and a new local plan policy, the later will prevail and your neighbourhood plan policy will be prematurely rendered out of date.

Fortunately, the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) is extremely helpful in the advice it sets out on seeking to ensure you align a neighbourhood plan with an emerging local plan. We have found it to be an excellent tool to apply some flexibility to the examination, particularly since another of the Basic Conditions is that the neighbourhood plan should have regard to national policy and advice issued by the Secretary of State i.e. the NPPF and PPG.

This reinforces the importance of building a good working relationship with your local authority. It is evident local authority resources are an issue, with communities preparing plans keen to engage, whilst council planning officers have to manage competing priorities, pulling them in all directions. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that time invested by communities working with the local authority is invaluable, bearing in mind the authority is likely to be able to share up-to-date evidence relevant to your plan’s area. Also it will be local authority officers who will assess planning applications using your neighbourhood plan’s policies when it is successfully made.

In terms of drafting your neighbourhood plan, and most specifically the policies, we cannot emphasise enough how important it is to focus on writing clear policies which link to the local objectives you have identified. Whilst it may be helpful to initially look at some examples of policies in other made neighbourhood plans, remember that your plan is all about the local distinctiveness of your area. If you can secure some professional planner input, we believe it is the policy wording where you will gain the most benefit.

To this end, the Government has made funding available for the provision of a professional assessment of your draft plan (known as a ‘health check’) towards the final stage of preparation, which will include looking at your proposed policies. It has been very apparent to us at examination stage which plans have benefited from a prior health check.

It is evident communities really are trying to grapple with local issues and are asking the ‘difficult questions’. Meaningful and often highly innovative community engagement typifies the approach which will galvanise community support for the plan. Neighbourhood planners are far too often characterised as being ‘NIMBY’. Most neighbourhood plans in our experience have been accepting of development, providing it is sustainable. However, there is a tendency, on occasion, to rather liberally use the Local Green Space Designation as a means to block development. This will be picked up at examination. The NPPF has very specific criteria around establishing whether individual green areas are truly of particular importance to the community. Again, look at the excellent advice in the PPG.

Finally, so often we come across community groups who open the discussion with ‘we are not professional planners’, yet after just a few minutes of talking it is quite clear that they have an incredibly good grasp of the task in hand. We have learnt very quickly, never underestimate a neighbourhood planner!

You can find out more about IPe and their neighbourhood planning examination and support services at www.intelligentplans.co.uk