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Examination of Witnesses

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 18th October 2016.

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Carol Reilly and Matt Thomson gave evidence.

We now hear oral evidence from Locality, and from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. For this session we have until 3 pm. I welcome the witnesses. Could you please introduce yourselves?

Carole Reilly:

Hello, I am Carol Reilly. I am the head of neighbourhoods and housing at Locality.

Matt Thomson:

Good afternoon. I am Matt Thomson. I am the head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Thank you. My plan has been ruined as the shadow Minister is no longer there.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q I am interested in the balance of the drive and ambition to build more homes with trying to protect the environmental standards, in particular around the green belt. I would welcome your views on that.

Matt Thomson:

Shall I kick off, given that green belt is one of the key things that the Campaign to Protect Rural England is concerned with? It comes down to the general principle behind neighbourhood planning, that people and communities at the local level are best placed to make decisions about the impacts of development on their area, and about the type of development that takes place in their area. The more local the level at which decisions are made, the better the outcomes can be for those kinds of concerns.

Carole Reilly:

I think it is really important that we listen to communities. We have seen a number of neighbourhood planning groups that are challenging local authorities that have not got a “brownfield first” policy. That is one the things that we see: a brownfield list that is going to be updated and reported on. That surely will be one of the ways, viability issues all being considered, of securing the green belt.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Welcome to Westminster. Do you think the way the local plan interacts with the neighbourhood plan could be improved in any way, particularly bearing in mind that the neighbourhood plan has been subject to local referendum? If you think that interaction could be improved, how would you suggest improving itQ ?

Carole Reilly:

I think we are going to see quite an interesting two years coming up, where local planning authorities are getting their local plans in place. I think neighbourhood plans and local plans can be produced in tandem. They depend on a lot of the same evidence. We are very heartened that this Bill shows a commitment for local authorities to explain what their support is going to be. There are a number of ways in which the development of the local plan would really help the development of a neighbourhood plan: giving maps, giving evidence, sharing diagrams—stuff that often does not happen at local authority level. So I think there is a way that they can be developed together. Without a local plan, obviously the latest plan takes precedence under the national planning policy framework—it is the neighbourhood plan. Where there is no five-year land supply, that leaves your neighbourhood plan terribly vulnerable. So I think the two have got to be intertwined. We also have to remember that, in practice, we are four years in, and there was a lot of scepticism from local authorities about neighbourhood plans. It feels like there is a far more open, partnership approach now.

But local planning authorities have been stripped of funding and they have reduced huge amounts of skills. Lots of people do not have a lot of experience with neighbourhood planning, and their focus will be on writing and producing the local plan. So I think they should be produced together, they should be meshed together, and that can be done by sharing that top-level evidence that is gathered by the local planning authority, but I think the resources are tight and the focus is going to be on the local plan.

Matt Thomson:

I would agree with a lot of what Carole said. The question reflects one of the key problems that we have been facing with the operation of the planning system for decades. That is that where you have tiers of nested planning policy documents, there is always a question of which has precedence over the other. It should not necessarily be just a question of the one that is produced most recently holding the most weight in a planning application environment.

Another, bigger, question has vexed us with regard to the relationship between local plans, county structure plans and regional strategies. We tend to think of neighbourhood plans as somehow needing to be prepared in the context of an adopted local plan, despite the fact that, although we have lots of adopted local plans, we do not have enough adopted local plans. But we need a relationship whereby the work that goes on at the neighbourhood plan level informs the preparation of the local plan, rather than the local plan, when it is finally produced, somehow trumping a short-lived neighbourhood plan and forcing the neighbourhood to review that plan. We need somehow to protect the policies and proposals of the neighbourhood plan, and bring them into the local plan when it is being produced.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q On that point, can you think of particular examples of the type of policies or measures that might appear in a neighbourhood plan and that you think could or should trump a local plan?

Matt Thomson:

The existing NPPF says that detailed policies—non-strategic policies—in a neighbourhood plan, where they exist, can outweigh the policies in the local plan.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q What is the definition of “strategic” in that context?

Matt Thomson:

I think, generally speaking, that that is interpreted as relating to the scale and location of mainly housing development. It is the big picture things. A lot of local plans have quite detailed policies on design, and on the kinds of development management policies and conditions that can be imposed on planning permissions and so on. A neighbourhood may feel that the design policies are not the right design policies for their particular area, and so produce their own design policies. It is that kind of thing.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q As an example, let us say that the local plan specifies the total number of housing units in a five-year period to be built in a particular area—in a village or a particular neighbourhood of a suburb. Would it be reasonable to say that a neighbourhood plan could allocate different sites—that would take precedence—provided that the total number of housing units was the same as specified in the local plan?

Matt Thomson:

That, I think, is a tricky area. A good example of where this has worked well is Thame in Oxfordshire. The district council gave an overall housing requirement for the Thame neighbourhood plan to meet and identify its own sites. It is more difficult when the district council has already identified sites, because the owner of that site has a reasonable expectation that they will get planning permission for it. It would be difficult for a neighbourhood plan to de-allocate a local plan. It is not impossible, and it may be appropriate to do that.

One of the other pitfalls we would want to watch out for is this: we know that neighbourhood plans are allocating more housing sites than they were expected to—that is the 10% or 11% figure that the Government have been talking about—and that is great news. What I would be really concerned about is when a neighbourhood is expected to provide 100 houses, but plans for 110 houses, and the local plan then takes the extra 10 houses off its total. It should be putting those 10 houses somewhere else in the district and not just double-counting, because it might lead to a void and end up punishing that neighbourhood for being much more forthcoming with housing sites.

Carole Reilly:

Also, where a local plan is allocating a large housing development, quite often what we have seen in practice is that, on designation of the area, the local authority has removed that strategic site from the neighbourhood planning designated area, against the wishes of the qualifying body. Quite often they are not even able to take those out, and there has been quite a lot of wrangling over designation for boundaries that are coterminous with parish boundaries, because strategic sites have been removed. Whether that is about not wanting to interfere with housing development or about protection of the community infrastructure levy, there are a lot of questions.

Matt Thomson:

To clarify, if it is desirable for a neighbourhood plan to de-allocate one site and allocate a different site, then that is a good thing—it is something that the CPRE would often support, because, as I said before, it is better for local people to make the decision. I am just saying that it would be tricky to do that. It could be tricky and there could be legal ramifications if an investor has invested in that site as a result.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

I am not sure that any public body has ever been financially liable for changing planning permissions.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q May I ask Carole Reilly how many neighbourhood plans Locality has supported to date?

Carole Reilly:

To date? Under the current programme, we have supported 1,300 neighbourhood plans with grants for technical support. In outline, there are two ways in which you can get support. You can get cash—£9,000 for straightforward plans and, for those that are more complex, the grant can go up to £15,000—and, alongside that, we offer a number of technical support packages. Under the current programme, which we have been running since the beginning of 2015, we have worked with 1,200 or 1,300 groups.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q Of those, how many neighbourhood plans have been in urban areas and/or in areas of significant deprivation?

Carole Reilly:

It is pretty similar to the national figure, so we are talking about 10% deprivation, but on the programme about 15% of groups coming from non-parish areas, which is slightly more—it stands to reason that those people would come in for higher levels of support.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q Have you done any work to understand good practice or the resources necessary to engage effectively communities that might not naturally have the capacity or inclination to engage in strategic planning?

Carole Reilly:

We have. We undertook an internal review early days, thinking, “Why is this going on?” because we always seemed to be speaking mainly to the parish council. I have to say that that is one of the elements of the Bill that I feel most disappointed with—it does not go far enough. There was a manifesto commitment to encourage neighbourhood planning across the country, but I think we could be sitting in this room in 10 years’ time and, if we have not done something very significant around urban and deprived areas, we will still be having 10% to 15% of forums doing neighbourhood plans.

Some of the issues are very straightforward. Parish and town councils have a place, a building, a phone, a clerk and an address where people know to go, so they are easy to do. When we did all the asset transfer work at Locality, people understood district councils better than counties. People understood where to go. Those councils also have a big infrastructure, like a number of other bodies, to inform them, “This is an opportunity, take it!” and they have a bank account that they can get going straightaway.

In urban areas, who is your neighbourhood? Is someone on the next street your neighbourhood? Where is the boundary? Is it coterminous with another one you know, such as your political or health boundary? What is it? That is really difficult. Who are the leaders on that? I think it is a major problem that neighbourhood forums have a five-year lifespan. From the start, that does not build in long-term thinking.

There is a problem about funding for implementation for forums, so while my first reaction would be to say that CIL is an issue, it and the new homes bonus scheme only channel funding to areas where there is growth already. If we look at those forums in deprived, urban areas, where CIL is set but set at nought, 0% of nought is still nought, so it makes no difference. These issues could be helped in terms of big-picture stuff. A national policy that tried to balance regeneration and planning would be really helpful so that people can understand what a neighbourhood plan can do for an area where there is actually not a lot of housing demand—there is not a problem because there is not a shortage—but where there is a shortage of employment. Using your neighbourhood plan to understand employment space and encourage and generate that would be great.

The reason why it does not happen in urban areas is that there is not already a thing or a vehicle to do it. In poorer areas, there is an issue about personal investment. If you do not own your own home—if you live in private rented accommodation—you have no investment there, and there is nothing to lose. If you are time-poor, you are not going to get involved. There are also things about skills, transient communities and a general point about focus.

I think a huge amount of work can be done. There have been promotional campaigns on neighbourhood planning, but I think we need something much more targeted and focused, something that works with the people that we know on the ground—the local planning authority—and supports them. We also need to fund it, so it is about a very proactive, promotional mobilisation campaign that targets specific groups to take it forward, otherwise we will be still be at the same picture.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Q I would very much like to ask Matt Thomson about one of the points made in your recent report, “Safe Under Us?” about housing development on the green belt. Obviously our planning rules say that such development should be made only in very exceptional cases, but I am alarmed by the research that CPRE and the London Green Belt Council have done, which seems to suggest that inspectors are now deeming general housing pressure and housing need to be sufficiently exceptional to justify green belt development. Could you expand on that?

Matt Thomson:

Well, you have put the case that I think CPRE would make very eloquently. Despite the fact that Ministers have said on several occasions that housing demand on its own is not sufficient justification to grant planning permission on green-belt land, it is of concern to us that neither local authorities nor the Planning Inspectorate have necessarily enforced that in all cases, and certainly not in a number of cases that are of concern to CPRE.

Secondly, under the same principle, it is very clear, in our view, in paragraph 14 of the NPPF that, while local authorities should plan to meet their objectively assessed need in full, the requirement does not apply in green belt areas and other areas listed in footnote 9. However, councils are planning for growth—despite being restricted by green belt—and releasing land from the green belt to meet that growth need at an increasing and higher rate than regional plans were doing before they were abolished, largely for the reason that they were proposing development in the green belt. Yes, that is a great concern to us. Housing need obviously needs to be met somewhere and there is still some way to go in order to overcome the problem of how housing need should be met while protecting the green belt and other areas of landscape importance and so on that we would expect to be protected.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Q Is there a legislative fix to this? Should we be thinking about adding something to the Bill to resolve the problem?

Matt Thomson:

Strangely, we are not calling for that. Our position is that the NPPF should be enforced, as the policy is clearly worded at the moment. At the moment, our feeling is that local authorities, which are hard-pressed to get local plans in place and to meet their unrealistic housing targets, are granting planning permission and releasing sites from the green belt through their local plans simply because they do not feel like they will get the support from the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State if they choose to do what the NPPF policy actually tells them to.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q I want to try to get under the skin of trying to encourage planners to come forward in areas of deprivation. In previous sessions, we have heard about a conflict between identifiable neighbourhoods of scale. Planning tends to be easier where a village can be identified that is very defined in its own right, but a lot harder in urban areas. Is that partly because, in urban areas, local is extremely local—the street or collections of streets, rather than defined villages and towns on a bigger scale? Could more support be given even more locally so that people could have a say? Perhaps clusters of communities might be able to come together with a bit more support than is currently offered.

Carole Reilly:

In urban areas?

Carole Reilly:

There are lots of examples of how you can find leaders in urban areas to help to identify what the needs are. Until recently, we ran the community organisers programme, funded through the Office of Community Services. That was an amazing way of finding out what people were passionate about in their communities, because—let’s face it—2,000 groups doing neighbourhood planning is not about a passion for planning. It is about a passion for places and for placemaking. We need to be really clear about that. It happens in cities and towns as much as in rural areas, so we should try to harness it, and there are a lot of ways of doing that.

We must commend the 14% of groups on our programme that are from urban areas and are delivering neighbourhood plans as forums, and we should understand why those groups exist. There is a really active group in London that is bringing together London neighbourhood planners and inspiring people, despite enormous odds including enormous development pressure, high land values and conflict over boundaries where every scrap of land is worth so much money. Conversely, in the north, regeneration may be at the very core of city centres, but is not in suburban areas.

There are loads of examples. Community organising approach is a big one, as is working with neighbourhood planning forums already in urban areas and getting them to spread the word. We have just started to run the neighbourhood planning champions programme, which is a really good way of inspiring people—come and see it. The resource programme is good. A lot of money has been dedicated to neighbourhood planning, but the promotion around urban areas has been under-resourced. The way to mobilise people in urban areas is to have a far more focused, targeted and funded intervention.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

Q In suggesting modifications that might be introduced to the neighbourhood plans, do you think that there will be enough chances to include and consider the environmental implications?

Matt Thomson:

The existing legislation—the Bill does nothing to harm this—gives communities the opportunity to address whatever issues they feel that they want to address through their neighbourhood plan. The serious question is whether the effort to which they go to do that will be taken notice of when it comes to planning permissions being granted.

Neighbourhood planning has the power for placemaking and environmental protection. Difficult decisions at a local level about how to balance the need for housing in a green-belt village with the desire to protect the green belt and that kind of thing are effectively made through neighbourhood plans. The question is whether the decisions actually get made in accordance with the neighbourhood plan. At that point, the concern about environmental protection really kicks in.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

Q If this was made very clear, perhaps with the guidance of the Bill, would that encourage communities to be keener to have development?

Matt Thomson:

There is already evidence that demonstrates that as soon as communities start considering about their development needs, even when they start off from a very nimby perspective, they think, “We are really worried about development that is going to come and destroy our village,” or whatever, and then they all sit down together and start talking about it. They then realise that there is a development need: the neighbour’s children need somewhere to live, there is a school that is threatened with closure or a shop that is closing down and so on, and people start to recognise the needs that they have. But again, because they are the local people and they know their area, they are best positioned to resolve the potential conflict between growth and conservation.

Carole Reilly:

There is a wide interpretation of environmental issues. We talk about coding on houses and new developments having to reach certain codes, but neighbourhood planners are the best people to understand their area and to build into it those things that make places permeable—things that make you able to walk to your shop, and not have a development that faces out in which you get in your car and drive to the mini-supermarket.

We do see lots of neighbourhood plans that are coming up with environmental policies, and they are very interesting. They have policies around walkability and building cycle paths. I think that is core to building communities; I do not think they are separated.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Q On that point, before you spoke, Ms Reilly, I wrote down safe walk routes, including school routes, and road design and layout. Are there sufficient powers in neighbourhood planning in relation to those issues, or is that merely illusory? Separately, Mr Thomson, in relation to neighbourhood plans that specify explicit preference for forms of energy that should be used within the neighbourhood and state that preference should be given only to housing that uses those forms of energy—in other words, plans that define what the energy requirements should be and how they should and perhaps should not be delivered—is there more scope for that? Are the powers there?

Carole Reilly:

I think there is more scope for it. One of the things we see time and again in neighbourhood planning is protecting green spaces. There is a balance between what is a land use planning policy and what is something that has actually drawn people to the table in the first place but is not a land use planning policy, and is then appendicised in a neighbourhood plan and therefore does not form part of a statutory document. These things always have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but there are loads of examples of neighbourhood plans that have protected green space and encouraged cycle paths, and there are other things that are more tangential that have not.

On the issue that was Matt’s answer about environmental energy use, the key question will be about viability. One of our technical support packages is around viability. We see neighbourhood planning groups being increasingly interested in site allocations, understanding the strategic environmental assessment and, on top of that, looking at the viability of a site. Neighbourhood planning groups will look at those sites that are not interesting to the volume house builders—they will look at a site that might have four plots on it. We run a programme for community-led housing in locality and we see these inspirational community organisations that think, “Actually, we need something for old people and we want to build it here,” in stuff that would be completely overlooked. I think it is not just about energy; it is about understanding those areas that would be distressed areas forever and understanding them within their viability in terms of using different sources of energy.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Carole Reilly, I think you said that the five-year life spans of neighbourhood plans do not encourage long-term thinking, if I understood you correctlyQ .

Carole Reilly:

For neighbourhood forums. A neighbourhood plan is the length you determine it to be.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Q Right. The Bill requires a local planning authority to review its statement of community involvement every five years. I wonder whether both of you think that is a suitable length of time. For a neighbourhood forum, do you think that five years is not long enough? In a constituency such as mine, there are a lot of transient people, and a lot of neighbourhood plans. People staying in urban areas do not get them, and there seems to be a mushrooming, with every street seemingly submitting one at the moment. There used to be a Central Ealing one, but now, even with that, everyone is coming forward with the whole impetus to localism. I wonder, for both of you, what those timeframes should be.

Matt Thomson:

My view on statements of community involvement is that they are a strange hangover from the former form of development plans. Really an SCI should be a piece of information, which is on a council’s website, that explains how people engage with the planning system in that council area. So it should be updated every time that the council has a new bit of information that it wants to share. The idea of reviewing the SCI every five years is bonkers; it should be reviewed all the time to make sure that people know how to engage with the planning system.

Order. On the point of bonkers, I am afraid we are going to have to stop. I have stretched it as much as I possibly could. I really apologise, because we could have gone further. Thank you for being excellent witnesses, but we have to move on. We will now hear evidence from the Compulsory Purchase Association, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Society and the Royal Town Planning Institute—for Members, page 32 of the brief. For this session we have until 4 pm.