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The white paper & neighbourhood planning

By Neil Homer

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

On the face of it, the Planning for the Future white paper poses an existential threat to neighbourhood planning.

The proposals for zoning, site allocations and development management policymaking all exclude neighbourhood plans, relegating them to nothing more than town and village design statements, which up until now have been too easy to ignore.

It is unlikely that the majority of professional planners, or their representatives, will lament the decline of neighbourhood planning. But they should be careful what they wish for.

Neighbourhood planning was founded on the proposition that communities, if given the policy levers, would be more accepting of development. In our experience, it has been proven undoubtedly right, but too few seem to know that or to care.

The thinly veiled attack on ‘experts’ in the Localism Act has not helped the reputation of neighbourhood planning. Nor have the resource constraints in planning authorities or the constant policy and development management system changes. And the costs and complexity of neighbourhood planning have been wildly over-estimated.

The white paper’s stated goal for enhanced community engagement in plan making and the recommendations in the Local Plan Expert Group in 2016 on how neighbourhood planning should enable quicker, strategic Local Plan making make the case for neighbourhood planning. There are many examples of innovative, positive neighbourhood plan making, that have succeeded despite what many developers and even some planning authorities have thrown at them. Many of those plans have also managed to overcome the unintended but significant obstacles of strategic environmental assessment and housing land availability assessments that have so bedevilled good old-fashioned town and county planning over the last two decades.

Two thirds of the plans that my consultancy has helped with since 2012 have chosen to allocate land for development. We estimate that they have planned for more than 12,000 homes versus their indicative or actual target of 7,500 homes. Not a single plan we have been involved with has deliberately sought to undercut the target and it would not have worked with the ‘basic conditions’ even if they had tried.

Some have successfully planned for the kind of substantial development of the proposed ‘growth’ areas. The others have carefully gone about stitching in new housing and other uses within and on the edges of their towns and villages or ‘renewal areas’ as we are to call them now. Plans were ready for their allocations to grant permission in principle three years ago and many are already working on design codes and neighbourhood development orders.

They have used proper spatial planning rather than the “computer, tell me the least worse housing sites to allocate” approach. This has enabled them to think about cumulative effects and local infrastructure needs, which have often been a weakness in the smaller Local Plan allocations. They have also got the closest to Skeffington’s recommendations for community engagement in plan making than any other initiative. Granted, there is still more that could be done, but that is about showing local people the plan-led system works and that they have a genuine stake and say in what happens around them.

The smartest developers and their consulting teams have begun to realise these benefits too, and there has been a noticeable shift in their attitudes to neighbourhood planning in recent years. Those working with communities to promote the right schemes in the right places will have a lot to lose in the very narrow development promotion window of the new Local Plans.

There is no question in my mind that neighbourhood planning has a lot to offer the new system, not just in design policy but in shaping growth and renewal and in determining how the trade-offs with protected areas should work in local communities. With Local Plans having to work to a 30 month deadline, neighbourhood plans could continue to share the load. I urge the government to revive the concept of neighbourhood planning in its white paper for the benefit of all.


Neil Homer MBA MRTPI

Neil is a planner and urban designer with more than 30 years professional experience. He founded ONeill Homer in 2011 with co-director Brendan ONeill with the aim of creating a new offer for local communities wanting to engage in the planning system. The business has since grown to become the leading independent neighbourhood planning consultancy helping 150 projects across 47 different planning authority areas. It also works with strategic developers specialising in brownfield site redevelopment in the north.


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