Plain English Guide to Localism

The planning system helps decide who can build what, where and how. It makes sure that buildings and structures that the country needs (including homes, offices, schools, hospitals, roads, train lines, power stations, water pipes, reservoirs and more) get built in the right place and to the right standards. A good planning system is essential for the economy, environment and society.

There are, however, some significant flaws in the planning system as it stands. Planning does not give members of the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives. Too often, power is exercised by people who are not directly affected by the decisions they are making. This means, understandably, that people often resent what they see as decisions and plans being forced on them. The result is a confrontational system where many applications end up being foughtover.

The Localism Bill contains proposals to make the planning system clearer, more democratic, and more effective.

Abolition of regional strategies

“Regional strategies” were first required by law in 2004. These strategies set out where new development needs to take place in each part of the country.   They include housing targets for different areas, set by central government. Local communities had relatively limited opportunities to influence the strategies.

The Government thinks that this centrally-driven approach to development is bureaucratic and undemocratic. Rather than helping get new houses built, it has had the effect of making people feel put upon and less likely to welcome new development.

The Secretary of State has already written to local authorities to tell them that the Government intends to abolish regional strategies. The Localism Bill will fulfil this intention, and get rid of the law that requires regional strategies.

Neighbourhood planning

Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. The Bill will introduce a new right for communities to draw up a “neighbourhood development plan.”

Neighbourhood planning will allow people to come together through a local parish council or neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like. These neighbourhood development plans could be very simple, or go into considerable detail where people want. Local communities would also be able to grant full or outline planning permission in areas where they most want to see new homes and businesses, making it easier and quicker for development to go ahead.

Provided a neighbourhood development plan is in line with national planning policy, with the strategic vision for the wider area set by the local authority, and with other legal requirements, local people will be able to vote on it in a referendum. If the plan is approved by a majority, then the local authority will bring it into force.

Local planning authorities will be required to provide technical advice and support as neighbourhoods draw up their plans. The Government will also fund sources of help and advice for communities. This will help people take advantage of the opportunity to exercise influence  over decisions that make a big difference to their lives.

Community right to build

As part of neighbourhood planning, the Bill will give groups of local people the ability to bring forward small developments. These might include new homes, businesses and shops. The benefits of the development, for example, profits made from letting the homes, will stay within the community.

Requirement to consult communities before submitting very large planning applications

To further strengthen the role of local communities in planning, the Bill will introduce a new requirement for developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for very large developments. This will give local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals.

Strengthening enforcement rules

For people to have a real sense that the planning system is working for them, they need to know that the rules they draw up will be respected. The Localism Bill will strengthen planning authorities’ powers to tackle abuses of the planning system, such as making deliberately misleading planning applications.

Reforming the community infrastructure levy

As well as being able to influence planning decisions, local people should be able to feel the benefits of new development in their neighbourhood. Local authorities are allowed to ask developers to pay a levy (charge) when they build new houses, businesses or shops. The money raised must go to support new infrastructure – such as roads and schools. This is called the community infrastructure levy.

The Localism Bill proposes changes to the levy to make it more flexible. It will allow the money raised to be spent on maintaining infrastructure, as well as building new infrastructure. It will give local authorities greater freedom in setting the rate that developers should pay in different areas. And crucially, the Bill will give the Government the power to require that some of the money
raised goes directly to the neighbourhoods where development takes place.  This will help ensure that the people who say “yes” to new development feel the benefit of that decision.

Reform the way local plans are made

Local planning authorities play a crucial role in local life, setting a vision, in consultation with local people, about what their area should look like in the future. The plans that local authorities draw up set out where new buildings, shops, businesses and infrastructure need to go, and what they should look like. .

The Government thinks it is important to give local planning authorities greater freedom to get on with this important job without undue interference from central government. The Localism Bill will limit the discretion of planning inspectors to insert their own wording into local plans. It will also ensure that rather than focusing on reporting plans’ progress to central government,
authorities focus on reporting progress to local communities.

Duty to cooperate

Not all planning decisions can, or should, be made at a neighbourhood or local level. In many cases there are very strong reasons for neighbouring local authorities, or groups of authorities, to work together on planning issues in the interests of all their local residents. This might include working together on environmental issues (like flooding), public transport networks (such as trams), or major new retail parks.

In the past, regional strategies formed an unaccountable bureaucratic layer on  top of local government. Instead, the Government thinks that local authorities and other public bodies should work together on planning issues in ways that reflect genuine shared interests and opportunities to make common cause.  The duty will require local authorities and other public bodies to work together on planning issues.

Nationally significant infrastructure projects

Some planning decisions are so important to our overall economy and society that they can only be taken at a national level. These include decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects such as major train lines and power stations. Currently, these decisions lie in the hands of an unelected public body, called the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It is not directly
accountable to the public. The Government thinks that these important decisions should be taken by Government Ministers, who are democratically accountable to the public. The Localism Bill will abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and restore its responsibility for taking decisions to Government Ministers. It will also ensure the National Policy Statements, which will be used to guide decisions by Ministers, can be voted on by parliament. Ministers intend to make sure that major planning decisions are made under new arrangements at least as quickly as the present system.


Neighbourhood planning – The Government’s proposals in the Localism Bill

 1.   The Localism Bill (published in December 2010) makes new provisions for neighbourhood planning, which would create a radical new element in the planning system in England. Through these provisions, local community groups (where designated as neighbourhood forums) and parish councils will be empowered to bring forward proposals for a development plan for their neighbourhood area or for an order granting planning permission(s) in that area. They will beable to require the local planning authority (LPA) to assist them in the preparation of their proposals and require them to take the proposals to independent examination. Proposals for plans or orders which are carried in a referendum will need to be brought into force by the local planning authority In this way, neighbourhood communities will be given real power to shape the way that the areas in which they live develop and grow.  Neighbourhood planning also provides for community organisations to bring forward site specific development proposals through a Community Right to Build Order.

2. More specifically, it is envisaged that the neighbourhood planning process will be undertaken as follows:

  • Parish councils and other certain community organisation would approach the local authority with a request to define an area for the purposes of neighbourhood planning. In parished areas, the applicant would have to be a parish council and the expectation is that in considering any application is that such areas will be followed. A local planning authority will need to have clear reasons relating to the planning of its area, if it does not follow parish boundaries in approving neighbourhood areas. In non-parished areas, the applicant would need to be an organisation that is capable of being designated as a neighbourhood forum.
  • Once a neighbourhood area has been designated, a local planning authority will have to start considering applications from organisations to be designated as the neighbourhood forum for that area. Once an organisation has been designated, it will be free to bring forward proposals for neighbourhood development plans and orders. A parish council will be free to bring forward such proposals in respects of its neighbourhood area once that area has been defined, provided it has the consent of the other parish councils (if any) whose areas are wholly or partly within the neighbourhood area.
    • Local planning authorities would be subject to a duty to support the parish councils and forums in the development of their proposals. Support provided might include, for example, the provision of advice or assistance on good practice in plan-making, and alignment with national policy, EU law and local plans. There would be no duty on the local planning authority to provide financial assistance.
    • If the proposed plan or order was compliant with certain legislative requirements, it would have to be submitted to an independent examination by a qualified assessor (normally held only by written representations). The examination would lead to a report which would be given to the parish council or forum promoting the plan or order and the local planning authority. The report would not be binding except in the case of Community Right to Build orders.
    • Following the independent examination (and following any modifications), as long as the draft plan or order meets certain tests including ones relating to national policy, EU law and the strategic elements of local plans, the local authority concerned would need to hold a local referendum on whether the draft plan or order should be brought into force.
    • Where the draft plan or order receives the support of more than 50 per cent of voters at the referendum (subject to compatibility with EU law and Convention rights), the local planning authority would required to bring the plan or order into effect.  Within the neighbourhood planning process is the Community Right to Build.  Under Community Right to Build, community organisations, established as a corporate body for the express purpose of furthering the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area, would be able to bring forward a proposal for a site specific development where the benefit, or receipts, from the development will be retained for the benefit of the local community. The process for applying for a Community Right to Build Order would largely follows that for a neighbourhood development order, but has been adapted so it is proportionate to the types of schemes envisaged. A Community Right to Build Order could be instigated independently of a plan or order being promoted by a neighbourhood forum or parish council.

4.   Neighbourhood planning will be additional to – and not a replacement for – the existing planning system in England.However, following enactment of the Localism Bill, we anticipate that development plan documents prepared by local authorities will be strongly informed by  neighbourhood planning initiatives within their areas.

5.  The contents of a neighbourhood plan or order under the Localism Bill is very flexible and they could be more or less detailed [or] prescriptive. It may contain the following:

A Neighbourhood Development Plan – Generic or specific neighbourhood policies against which traditional planning applications could be judged.  These policies may augment or refine or add to the policies in the local authority plan. Policies within a neighbourhood development plan could cover:

  • planning objectives for the neighbourhood
  • the broad planning context (e.g. transport connections), local facilities, services
  • key neighbourhood projects and infrastructure priorities
  • development management policies on housing, economic development, environment
  • site-specific policies on housing, economic development and environmental issues
  • changes in the coverage of some planning designations.

Neighbourhood Development Orders – A Neighbourhood Development Order which would directly grant planning permission for certain specified kinds of developments within the neighbourhood area. Permission could be full or outline, and could have conditions attached and it could be site specific or an order could grant more generalised development rights across the neighbourhood area. A Community Right to Build Order will be a special kind of Neighbourhood Development Order brought forward under the Community Right to Build and will be subject to similar requirements as a Neighbourhood Development Order in respect of independent examination and its requirements in respect of legal and policy provisions.

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