Neighbourhood Plans – What, Why, How Why prepare a neighbourhood plan?

Neighbourhood plans represent a very significant commitment in terms of time and energy. There are also financial costs associated with things like community engagement, printing and sometimes professional fees. Preparing a neighbourhood plan involves taking tough and sometimes controversial decisions. Yet around 1,000 parish councils and neighbourhood forums have commenced work on preparing a neighbourhood plan for their local area. So what are the incentives that have led so many people to decide that neighbourhood planning is for them?

To begin answering this question, it is first necessary to clarify what a neighbourhood plan is and what it can and can’t do.

Neighbourhood plans may be prepared by parish councils or, where there is no parish council, neighbourhood forums. Neighbourhood forums must be comprised of at least 21 people that live, work or are elected members in the area.

A neighbourhood plan is concerned with town and country planning. It can out in place policies to shape and regulate new development or changes of use of land or buildings. Once a neighbourhood plan is made, it forms part of the statutory development plan for the area. That means that planning applications would be determined in accordance with the policies of the neighbourhood plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. This means that neighbourhood plans carry real weight.

Neighbourhood plans can consider a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues arising from the use and development of land. They can deal with issues like new housing, employment, urban design and heritage. It is for those preparing the plan to decide on the subjects it deals with. You could have a one issue, one policy plan, or it could deal with a wide range of issues.

Neighbourhood plans can also make site allocations for new development. This means that they can identify the sites where new development of different types can take place, and where it should not take place.

There are limitations to neighbourhood plans. They can’t deal with non-planning matters. Also, they must meet certain ‘basic conditions’ and these are tested through an independent examination.

What are the Basic Conditions?

The basic conditions require all neighbourhood plans to:

  • Have regard to national policy and guidance
  • Be in general conformity with strategic local policies
  • Achieve sustainable development
  • Be compatible with EU Obligations (environment, habitats) and human rights.

For national policy, the key documents to consider are the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG). Both can be downloaded through the DCLG web site. National policy emphasises the need for neighbourhood plans to be evidence based. This includes consideration of evidence under-pinning any emerging local plans.

The local planning authority should be contacted at an early stage to discuss which policies in the adopted local plan are considered to be strategic. The neighbourhood plan must conform generally to these policies, but may modify non-strategic policies.

The need to achieve sustainable development means that the plan must cater for growth, but without compromising the interests of future generations. Sustainable development is about achieving a balance between social, economic and environmental considerations. A practical example of how to build sustainability into a neighbourhood plan could be the inclusion of green travel policies to ensure that new housing developments are convenient for pedestrians, include cycle storage and easy access to public transport.

The need to be compatible with EU obligations may be addressed in various ways. A neighbourhood plan should be screened by the local planning authority to determine whether it needs Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA). An equalities impact assessment may be carried out to determine how the plan affects protected characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Unless a neighbourhood plan meets the basic conditions, it will not be able to progress to the referendum stage.

What if we don’t prepare a neighbourhood plan?

If there is no neighbourhood plan, then planning applications will be considered against the local plan and national policy. Sites can be allocated through the local plan process alone. If the community is happy with the local plan, then preparing a neighbourhood plan may not be the best course of action.

Also, a neighbourhood plan is essentially a policy document. In some areas, especially where the economy is weak, it may be more effective for resources to be targeted at direct delivery, such as a community development project.

Designation of the Neighbourhood Area and Forum

The first formal stage in preparing a neighbourhood plan is to submit the proposed neighbourhood area to the local planning authority for designation. Where the plan is being led by a prospective neighbourhood forum, that too must be submitted to the local planning authority for designation.

In reality, there will need to have been quite a lot of preparatory work before the submission stage. This will include publicising the proposal to prepare a neighbourhood plan so that as many people as possible are aware of what it is and why one is being prepared. Local key stakeholders will need to be identified and invited to participate. Community engagement activities should commence at the earliest stage. This

is especially important where a plan is being led by a prospective neighbourhood forum, where there will need to be an inclusive process for putting together the forum and identifying the neighbourhood area.

Community Engagement and the Evidence Base

Once the neighbourhood area is designated (and the neighbourhood forum where necessary), the plan may proceed. The foundations of a good and viable plan are rigorous community and stakeholder engagement and a robust and proportionate evidence base. These will provide a good understanding of the area and its communities.

Although there is no statutory requirement for a neighbourhood plan to have stated aims or vision, these do provide a very good working discipline and ensure that the plan has a clear focus to the plan. Consideration of evidence and the outcome of community engagement activities should help to clarify key issues for the plan to address and from those key aims.

It will be necessary to sift out non-planning matters. The neighbourhood plan should focus on planning only. Other matters will have to be dealt with by other means, such as negotiations with public bodies or through the development and delivery of community projects.

Writing the Policies

The policies of the neighbourhood plan and site allocations, where undertaken, are the working part of the document. These will form the basis of decision making on future planning applications (together with the local plan and national policy).

Policies should be clear and unambiguous in their requirements. Vague statements like “new development should be well designed” will achieve little unless backed by clear and definite requirements. Care is required in terminology – for example in the use of the word ‘must’ rather than ‘should’.

Once a plan is written, it is useful to get it reviewed by an experienced practitioner. This will help to iron out any issues in terms of meeting the basic conditions and will also help to ensure that the policies will be effective.

Submitting the Neighbourhood Plan

Once a draft plan has been prepared, it has to be subjected to a 6-week statutory consultation. This includes consulting national bodies, such as the Environment Agency and English Heritage.

At the end of the 6-week consultation, all responses must be considered and, where considered necessary, the draft plan should be modified.

The plan is then ready for formal submission to the local planning authority. The plan and a map of the neighbourhood area must be submitted, together with two supporting statements. The first of these is the consultation statement, which must set out the responses to the 6-week consultation, together with explanations of what action was taken as a consequence. The second statement deals with the basic conditions. This provides the opportunity to explain to the independent examiner how the plan meets the basic conditions.

The local planning authority will publicise the plan for a 6-week period.

The Independent Examination

The independent examination will consider whether the neighbourhood plan proposal meets the basic conditions. It will also consider whether the voting area should be wider than the neighbourhood area. Usually, the independent examination will be conducted through written representations. However, there could also be a hearing, if the independent examiner considers it necessary.

The independent examiner may recommend that the plan proceed to referendum, that it be modified and then proceed to referendum or that it does not proceed to referendum. The independent examiner’s report is not binding. It is for the local planning authority to decide whether or not to proceed to referendum, with or without modifications. This decision is based on whether the plan meets the basic conditions – not consideration of the planning merits of the draft plan.

The Referendum

If the plan is found to meet the basic conditions, with or without modifications, then it will be the subject of a public referendum. There may be an additional business referendum for areas wholly or predominantly business in nature. If the neighbourhood plan proposal gains a majority ‘yes’ vote, then the local planning authority has to ‘make’ the plan.  Once the plan is made, it forms part of the statutory development plan for the area.

What Happens Next?

Once made, a neighbourhood plan, together with the local plan, provides a framework against which development proposals are considered. A good neighbourhood plan will provide a positive vision for the development of the area, making sure that the needs of all sections of the community are met as far as possible.

Often the process of preparing the neighbourhood plan is as useful as the plan itself. It brings people and organisations together and starts dialogues that may otherwise not happen. Some neighbourhood plan bodies have also started to consider developing community projects.

It is still early days, but the 2-3 years will be crucial in establishing whether neighbourhood plans can meet people’s expectations.

Dave Chetwyn is Managing Director of Urban Vision Enterprise CIC, Chair of the Historic Towns Forum and Planning Adviser to Locality.