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Neighbourhood plan examinations: why they need to be tough

22 May 2017 Author: Kat Salter

With over 2,000 neighbourhood areas now designated, support for neighbourhood planning shows no signs of abating. But many people are finding the process burdensome and complex with particular challenges at the examination stage.

Communities should understand that the examination is not the “final hurdle” – the real test is when the plan policies are applied during the planning application process and are subject to developer challenge.

Conflicts abound when plans are taken to examination

More than 300 plans have now successfully passed examination, but the vast majority of them have not progressed unscathed. They will have been subject to substantial modification including amendments to policy wording, deletion of policies, and restructuring of the plan document.

This has caused alarm with some groups deciding not to proceed to the referendum, and in the case of Swanwick the Parish Council actively campaigned for a ‘no’ vote at referendum as they disagreed with the post-examination modifications (the plan did not go through).

DCLG is now considering whether more regulation is needed. Proposals in the Neighbourhood Planning Act include increased engagement of interested parties during the examination process (namely between the examiner, neighbourhood planning group and the local planning authority). This is deemed useful to reduce the ‘shock’ of receiving the final examination report, and to offer opportunities to resolve issues in a more ‘agreeable’ manner.  

More regulation not enough to resolve issues

But is this enough? Our research suggests not - many issues picked up at examination could and should have been addressed earlier.

What is clear is that although the examination stage is where conflicts are arbitrated, the cause of conflict is often “upstream.”  

Eighty-eight percent of examiners reported that communities approach the plan and examination with basic or poor knowledge. This is likely to reflect groups’ lack of technical planning expertise and their ability to engage with and produce statutory planning documents. Common pitfalls include the understanding of the meaning of “development,’ attempts to include non land-use policies, a lack of appreciation of existing policies, imprecise wording of policies, and inadequate evidence base.

The examiner has the responsibility to ensure neighbourhood plans meet the ‘basic conditions’; if the documents do not meet them they will recommend modifications.  This has caused frustration and concern in people who feel that their aspirations have been diluted - leading to a general sense of loss of ownership. Many are realising that a statutory neighbourhood plan is not enabling them to shape their area entirely as they wish.  

More concerted efforts “upstream” needed

What is clear is that although the examination stage is where such conflicts are arbitrated, the cause of conflict is often “upstream.”  There are broader questions about the alignment of government objectives for neighbourhood planning with those of community groups, and the technocratic and bureaucratic processes that can sit in tension with the aspirations of communities.

Increased engagement and discussion between interested parties during examination may help groups to understand the reasons behind any proposed modifications, but it is unlikely to reduce the need for modifications. The cost and impact of the examination will not be diminished.

What matters more is concerted efforts “upstream”, such as greater input from local planning authorities; clarity of what the neighbourhood plan can and cannot do; greater emphasis on providing groups with policy writing and evidence gathering skills; and measures to ensure groups are fully aware of the requirements and legislative process of neighbourhood planning.  This should be coupled with measures to ensure consistency between examiners and a high standard of examination.

Tough examination ensures a plan can stand up to scrutiny in court

Getting past a tough examination stands a neighbourhood plan in good stead in the long run. Communities should understand that the examination is not the “final hurdle” – the real test is when the plan policies are applied during the planning application process and are subject to developer challenge. Understanding the value of producing an implementable and deliverable neighbourhood plan is key.

Both examiners and communities require clear and targeted support. Rather than just focussing on the examination stage we suggest a more comprehensive approach: 

  • Thorough, on-going and mandatory training for examiners
  • A system of peer review and a mechanism for examiners to share information and seek advice and guidance
  • Greater clarity on what can and cannot be included in a neighbourhood plan
  • Clearer and comprehensive guidance about examination for all parties – to include not only the examination process but also common issues that occur at examination
  • A more systematic filing system for documentary resources for neighbourhood planning
  • Measures to increase people’s awareness and knowledge of what happens “post-examination” - the examination should be seen as one stage in the process as opposed to the “final hurdle”
  • Up-skilling and supporting local planning authority officers to ensure that they have the capacity and knowledge to offer advice and support

A strong and robust examination process is vital in ensuring that neighbourhood plans fulfil their statutory duties. Arbitration of conflict at this stage has to be preferable to communities getting their plan ‘past the examiner’ only to find that it does not stand up to scrutiny at appeal or when planning decisions are being made.  If this were to happen people would be right to question, what was the point?

This blogpost is based on ongoing research carried out by Professor Gavin Parker, Kat Salter and Hannah Hickman which explores the experience of examiners in the neighbourhood planning process. Further information can be found here. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the RTPI. 

Kat Salter

Kat Salter

Kat Salter is a Chartered Town Planner with over 10 years experience and a passionate advocate of involving the community in planning. Kat has experience of neighbourhood planning from various angles having worked for central government, Planning Aid England and most recently as an Independent Consultant and PhD Research Student.