First announced in the Queen’s Speech back in May the long awaited Neighbourhood Planning Bill was published last week. Unusually the Bill is more notable for what it doesn’t contain than what it does.
The Bill was originally trailed as the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, and its key functions were to be streamlining neighbourhood planning and making the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) a Statutory Body. While it makes sense that these two disparate issues are considered separately, this does pose some interesting challenges for the future. Plus the controversial plans for the privatisation of the Land Registry are absent from the Bill. Keeping the Land Registry in the public sector can only be a good thing for transparency and democracy in the planning process but we are aware that these proposals have only been put ‘on ice’ for further consideration at a later date.
The National Infrastructure Commission
The aim of the NIC, which was was set up last year as a non-governmental body under the Treasury, is to enable long term strategic decision making on major infrastructure across the UK. This year the NIC completed its National Infrastructure Assessment, however the Bill was entirely silent on the matter of the NIC. So the next big question is what next for infrastructure in the UK? While the remit of the NIC has never encompassed the environment (it focussed instead on economic development and quality of life) it did at least promise a structured and strategic approach to infrastructure. This has got to be better for the environment than the current unplanned, scattergun approach.
Gavin Barwell MP, the new Planning Minister, has assured the Trust that the role of the NIC is just being reconsidered along with the new industrial strategy and that there will be an announcement in the Autumn Statement. Meanwhile instead of simply speculating we need to be pushing for an approach to infrastructure that not only delivers the growth we need where we need it, but also puts the environment and ecosystems services at the heart of decision making.
The Bill is good news for everyone preparing a neighbourhood plan, streamlining the process and adding more clarity with regard to the plan making. It will provide more certainty on the status of plans that have passed their examination and will make updating a plan simpler when local circumstances change. The Bill also makes the duty for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to support neighbourhood planning clearer.
This is all good news and is to be welcomed in principle. However it must be remembered that these changes will place further pressure on Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) at a time when their resources are being increasingly stretched. Whilst the Bill may set out more clearly the duties on LPAs with regard to neighbourhood planning there is no accompanying financial package to help them do it. As such there is a risk that the Bill could raises communities’ expectations without enabling LPAs to meet them, causing frustration and disillusionment on both sides.
The Bill sets a lot of stall upon neighbourhood planning as a tool to increase house building. So far there seems to be little evidence of this with most plans initiated in the face of a perceived threat. We would urge all neighbourhood planning groups to see them as an opportunity to set out high standards for development in their community. Please see our website for neighbourhood planning resources. These are in the process of being updated, so please do keep checking back.
Pre-Commencement Planning Conditions
This is the element of the Bill that is of most concern to us at the Trust. Pre-commencement conditions are conditions that must be discharged (officially signed off) by the LPA prior to development being allowed to start. They often request things such as the LPA being able to sign off a landscaping scheme or species surveys. There has been a lot of rhetoric on pre-commencement conditions slowing down the delivery of development. The Bill sets out that applicants will now need to give written consent before pre-commencement conditions can be used. At the Trust we are concerned that this will have the opposite effect, i.e. that it will actually slow down development and encourage planners to avoid applying critical conditions. The Planning Minister has assured us that this will not be a problem as all development still has to comply with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Given our underlying concerns about the NPPF failing to safeguard ancient woodland this does not provide much reassurance, and this is something we are very keen to work on with officials to ensure we get the best possible outcome for woods and trees.