Good afternoon. I am Jonathan Owen. I am the chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils, which works closely with 43 county associations to support and promote the interests of 10,000 parish and town councils across England that are keen to help with levelling up and address many of the missions that are set out to support the Bill.
Hello. I am Tony Burton. I am one of the convenors of Neighbourhood Planners London. We are a volunteer-run network, which supports neighbourhood planners in the capital and raises the profile of neighbourhood planning. I can also bring some personal insight, as a neighbourhood planning examiner.
Q Thank you, Mrs Murray, and I thank the witnesses for their attendance this morning.
In the previous evidence session, we heard that people often describe planning as something that happens to them. Do you think that the measures in the Bill will increase community engagement in all aspects of the planning process, particularly the development of local plans and other individual planning applications? Do you think that some of the measures, such as the introduction of the neighbourhood priority statements, will help to increase the number of neighbourhood planning groups that might be spread in areas that have been difficult to reach so far?
Generally, we think the Bill is helpful for communities who want to have more of a say on planning issues. There are one or two headlines. The most pre-emptive one is that the Bill confirms the statutory role for neighbourhood planning, given the uncertainty since the publication of a White Paper that said relatively little about it and that brought forward some proposals that would have shut out community input, such as those at the planning application stage.
The specific measures around neighbourhood planning, and I appreciate that your question goes wider than that, are relatively limited. The adjustments to the basic conditions and the broad definition that has been provided, which is helpful, will not have a significant impact on take-up. They will help to clarify some elements of process. And neighbourhood planning will be caught up in the same changes as local plans, when it comes to the primacy of the development plan and the centralisation of the development of management policies. Again, they need to play out, but much of that is welcome, because it attaches additional weight to the document, and to the time and effort that volunteers invest.
The neighbourhood priority statements are triggering some interest among the groups we work with, but they are also raising a significant number of questions. In our view, if the aim is to support greater take-up, particularly in urban areas, which I know the Minister is keen to see, then more needs to be done. They need to be seen as something that is additional to and complementary to neighbourhood planning, not a replacement for it.
The legislation is quite weak in the weight that needs to be attached to it by local authorities; the “have regard” requirement is weak. We have a decade of experience in London of boroughs not really taking that much notice even of neighbourhood plans, which are statutory documents, so we would like to see a stronger weight attached.
It needs to be confirmed in the legislation, not just elsewhere, that it is about more than informing local plans. We understand that that is the Government’s intention, but the current drafting of the Bill is quite restrictive. We think that it would be really sensible if the Government supported communities to pilot and to try to make all priority statements before the legislation is finalised, so that we get a real sense of what they could achieve.
The disappointment is that the local planning provisions are not more extensive, to encourage wider community involvement. We are about to publish our “The State of Neighbourhood Planning in London” report this evening, and it shows that progress in engaging communities is still being hampered by obstructive local authorities in many cases. Therefore, we believe that if the Bill is to effectively engage communities in leading development, as opposed to responding to it—doing planning, as opposed to having it done to them—it really needs to strengthen the legal duty on local authorities to support neighbourhood planning. It needs to give neighbourhood forums the same powers as parish and town councils in receiving and spending the neighbourhood element of the community infrastructure levy. At a stroke, that is the single most important thing that the Government could do to encourage local planning in cities. The Bill also needs to set time limits on local authorities making decisions on key stages.
The final point we would make is that the Bill itself will not be enough, and that there will need to be support for communities to engage and involve themselves. We would put particular attention on the role of the neighbourhood planning support programme, which is probably the single most important measure available to accelerate community involvement in planning decisions. It could be significantly improved and increased.
I am sure it will not surprise any of you to hear that probably the No. 1 issue affecting 10,000 parish and town councils and 100,000 councillors is planning. That is top of their agenda, and I think it would be fair to say that we need to look at every way we can to make sure that the public are more effectively engaged with the system. We are pleased with the emphasis on a plan-based system—that is right—and public engagement in that planning is absolutely vital.
The main area of interest for us is neighbourhood planning, and parish and town councils have really been in the driving seat of producing those plans. I think there have been about 3,000 so far, with about 90% done by parish and town councils. They have had amazing referenda, with something like a million people voting in them over the last few years. I think they cover an area of about 10 million people. That is a really good way in which the public can engage with the planning system, but there are thousands and thousands of other communities that are being left behind and that do not have neighbourhood plans by parish and town councils or neighbourhood forums.
Some of the feedback that we had from our 10,000 parish councils was that they were concerned that it will be costly and time consuming, and that the neighbourhood plans will be overlooked and not taken seriously by principal authorities. A lot of the measures in the Bill will help address those issues, which should help with promoting neighbourhood planning.
This must not stop with the Bill. If you are going to reach the other 7,000 or 8,000 communities, we need to make sure that we are promoting neighbourhood planning and its benefits, and that we are investing in helping those communities to do that work. I would encourage you to continue with the grants that are available, and perhaps to make them easier to access. We have had a good start to neighbourhood planning, and I am really pleased that you are committed to continuing with it and making it more effective. We will work with you to try to make that happen.
There are a couple of bits of other feedback around the infrastructure levy. Again, that is to be supported, but there is a risk that because the percentage is the same regardless of whether you have a neighbourhood plan or not, there might be a slight disincentive to produce a neighbourhood plan. As you know, there is a boost to the share of the community infrastructure levy if you have a neighbourhood plan. It would be good if you could consider how best to address that point, so that people are incentivised to have neighbourhood plans and to engage effectively with the public.
On the specific matter of the mini neighbourhood plan, I think that is fine but, again, we need to make sure that doesn’t limit communities’ ambitions to go further and to have neighbourhood plans. We probably need to balance that territory.
I have been amazed by the innovation of many neighbourhood plans and the things they are now trying to address, including climate change, health and wellbeing, such as dementia-friendly aspects, and a vast range of other things. Clearly, we must not lose that innovation. We must use this Bill to drive forward neighbourhood planning and get more people involved with it, and I think that would be a good thing.
Q Thank you. In the spirit of wanting to encourage more people to get involved in the development of local plans, we have certainly heard from communities that it is a very complex process. If you are a parish or town council, there may be some resource you can lean on, but in areas that are not covered by town or parish councils such work is reliant on volunteers. Do you think the digitalisation of the process will life a lot easier? Will that encourage more people to take up the mantle of developing a neighbourhood plan for their community?
I think one thing we have learned over the last couple years is that people are getting more and more used to digital engagement and using such systems, so that probably will be the case. Obviously, you will need to review and monitor it, but I think it is certainly something that is worth developing further.
Many of our parish and town councils are already using digital processes when considering planning applications for principal authorities, so I think that could well make a difference. There might be some capital investment required to ensure that even remote communities in the middle of rural Suffolk, where I live, can access the material online without being excluded.
Our experience is that digital is part of the answer. In relation to local and neighbourhood plans, we would point to the opportunities it presents around new, complementary forms of community engagement—there are now a variety of tools available to support that—and more effective ways of pooling and analysing the evidence that is required, which is often a minefield of PDFs that do not link to each other or help people to navigate the system or get to the nub of the issues.
There is a potential—this is something we have been pressing for—for the neighbourhood planning support programme to provide bespoke support around this and to offer provision for particular elements, such as centralised tools or databases. Also, we would emphasise more digital mapping. Almost by definition, planning is about maps and places—it is spatial—and yet the ways in which we bring everything together on a map are still rather clunky and not all that effective. The best of what is out there shows what can be done, and the best should be the norm.
I would emphasise that digital is only part of a solution. It is no panacea and nothing is more important than the peer-to-peer, face-to-face support that communities need to support them to be their best when it comes to engaging with these processes.
Q Thank you, Mrs Murray. The Bill comes at a time when various processes to look at the reform of neighbourhood governance are still under way, but it still contains a number of important changes, be it the strengthening of neighbourhood plans or the changes to the infrastructure levy, with potentially larger sums for neighbourhood communities. There are also things such as street votes and high street rental auctions, which might give community groups, and indeed parish councils and the like, a chance to get on to the high street and increase their visibility. Reflecting as practitioners of neighbourhood governance, what is your advice on how best we can put into practice the different measures in the Bill so that they best channel the energies and pick up the concerns of neighbourhoods and local communities?
We are really keen to see the detail on some of the other aspects of the neighbourhood governance review. The White Paper held out for us real promise to ensure that the opportunities of devolution and levelling up were really seized, so I hope you will not mind if start off by encouraging you to consider how you can build aspects of that wider review into the Bill. We are particularly keen to see the review conducted within quite a reasonable timescale, to be involved in the process and to make sure that any proposals that come out of it are enacted. We would quite like to see some sort of placeholder clause put in for street votes, to say that the neighbourhood governance review will be completed within a certain time and the agreed proposals enacted. I do not know whether that is possible, but I really do think you might miss an opportunity if you do not engage fully in that review and implement some of its actions.
The key things for us are about making it easier to set up parish and town councils. At the moment, about two thirds of the country has a parish, but only about a third of the population, which means that two thirds of the population are missing out on having the first tier of local government supporting community empowerment and helping them address the big challenges that we face. Many of you will be aware of the research done by Onward. Its social fabric index showed that places with parish councils tended to have a stronger community identity and so forth. I think there are some real opportunities that need to be picked up either as part of the Bill or as part of that wider neighbourhood governance review.
The other big area for us is funding of the sector. At the moment, our councils are not necessarily able to access some funding streams, such as the community ownership fund and other things. It would be good to look at making it possible for them to access that funding. An interesting example of that was how, through the covid pandemic, a lot of our 10,000 councils stepped up really early, as you will be aware, to set up volunteering arrangements and support local communities. Many of them did really great things, but many of them lost out from lost income. You were able to compensate the principal authorities but unable to compensate parish councils that had lost out. To be honest, principal authorities were reluctant to devolve much of the funding they received down to our level.
I think you should consider using the Bill to put in place a mechanism whereby you would be able to fund local councils directly. That could be really helpful to this Government and probably to future Governments when another big problem happens, such as the pandemic, so that you would be able to reach down to communities throughout the country and provide some financial support or lifeline as necessary.
On the street votes, we will be interested to see the detail on that and, again, picking up on my other point on neighbourhood planning, we just need to make sure that that complements and does not replace the wider neighbourhood planning role.
Finally, returning to the last question on digitalisation, the holding of remote meetings has been really useful in the last couple of years. We have seen evidence that lots of members of the public have attended parish and town council meetings because they are able just to attend for the one item that interests them, which is often a planning matter. Enabling councils to meet remotely and have engagement remotely from residents would be really good.
I think it is a really helpful question to be asking at this stage. There is experience from similar questions that came through on the Localism Act 2011, from which some of the existing community rights measures stemmed. If we look back over those 10 years, we see that some have been successful and some have disappeared, frankly—they might be on the statute book but no one is using the power they provide. The things that worked are those that responded to what people want—there may be lessons here for the provisions you cited and others in the Bill. They were a response to what our communities were asking for, as opposed to us saying, “We’ve got a good idea. Please will you use it.” Some came with support and help, which allowed communities to really understand how to navigate and use the process and talk to others that are maybe slightly further ahead of them in the process. Some in a sense held the ring on some of the bigger questions.
That is why neighbourhood planning is so good. It is such a flexible and strategic tool, as well as being locally specific. You can make it a single policy about a single issue if you want, or you can make it a mini local plan that covers the bases. It is up to the community to drive that process.
I would also encourage you to anticipate where there will be blockages in the application of whatever powers or rights are being established. With neighbourhood planning we have had to retrofit a lot of those, and it has not been that helpful. There have been things such as the timetables for local authorities to make decisions and some of the powers to appeal to the Secretary of State. It is actually worth stress testing these against the worst cases within which they are trying to be applied as well as thinking that we are always going to be operating in a benevolent environment.
Q Thank you, Mrs Murray, and I thank both witnesses for attending. I would ideally like to get through four questions, so I would appreciate it if you could trim your answers to help me do that. The first question relates to national development management plans. Do you take issue with them on principle, on the grounds that they undermine the primacy of local and neighbourhood plans? If not, do you think their use should be circumscribed? If so, how tightly?
As I said, we are strongly supportive of a plan-led system, and we are concerned that those national development management policies might well take primacy over neighbourhood plans and cause difficulties. We would like to see the Bill amended so that they do not have primacy over those other local deals. I also think there should be consideration to make sure that if those national policies are changed, it does not require an immediate updating of a neighbourhood or local plan. I think there is a risk that we will have waves of new national plans that will then set aside some of the local policies.
I agree with that. [Inaudible.] There is merit in setting out at a national level those policies that are appropriate to be expressed at a national level: policies that are universally applicable and set the framework within which other things happen. We see completely unnecessary repetition, rewording, obfuscation and a lack of clarity when they are carried forward through development plans and some neighbourhood plans.
The risk is that national policies stray too far into matters that are much better decided at the local or neighbourhood level. There will always be a very strong temptation for Whitehall to overstep the mark, as history shows. We think that there need to be clear measures that prescribe and limit the national development management policies to those things for which they are appropriate and which do not fetter the nuance and local understanding that is brought at local and neighbourhood level.
Q Thank you. I am sure you both know that, unlike national policy statements, the Bill proposes no parliamentary approval process for NDMPs and stipulates that the requirement to consult is entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Can I take it that you both agree there should be a greater degree of consultation and parliamentary oversight of these plans?
Yes, indeed. We don’t necessarily think that they are sufficient on the NPSs or indeed the national planning policy framework, so it is not just about equivalence. That could all be significantly improved to a much more citizen and community-led insight into how these policies are being drawn up.
Q I have a very specific question relating to clause 83, which states that planning determination must be made
“in accordance with the development plan and any national development management policies, unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise.”
Is that language sufficiently clear to be easily understood by councils?
May I digress briefly? This is a personal question, because over 30 years ago, in a different campaigning role, I was responsible for drafting all the amendments to what became the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which includes the provisions that clause 83 now seeks to change. At that time, we went through about a dozen variations of how to express on the face of the Bill what we were seeking to achieve. Sir George Young was the Minister responsible and was seeking a plan-led system. We even tried “strongly” at the time and, if my memory serves me right, it was rejected by Parliament’s legal experts. So although the language is clunky—it is legalistic—it has a 30-year track record. The insertion of a single word is a helpful expression of a more plan-led approach. It might be more helpful to go down that route than it would be to develop an entirely different set of wording, which would then trigger a whole new set of case law having to be established. In terms of the pragmatic achievement of what we are trying to do here—to strengthen a plan-led approach—the pragmatic approach, as suggested in the Bill, is reasonable.
Q The Bill introduces two new development plan documents: spatial development strategies and supplementary plans. However, it provides only for extremely limited opportunities for the public to participate in producing them. Should the Bill be amended to ensure that members of the public can be involved in every aspect of development plan formulation? If so, what might that look like?
Again, it is the same point that we have made throughout. You cannot, on the one hand, have a Bill that has written through it political rhetoric about communities having more insight and influence, being less done to, and strengthening the role in local planning, but on the other hand have critical documents prepared by other parts of the system being drawn up without the benefit of the insight that those communities that will be involved in other ways can bring. Providing those legal safeguards is an essential process, in our view, and that needs to be more than six weeks of a PDF being on a website; it needs to be something that requires positive interaction being secured with those who are going to be interested and engaged in it.
There is some helpful evidence from the neighbourhood planning process. Where communities have been engaged and have inputted effectively to the development of neighbourhood plans, they have understood the reasons for some of the development pressures and other things. Actually, where there are neighbourhood plans, additional housing to that anticipated in the local plan has often been put in place. Engagement and full consultation, as Tony suggested, is sensible.
Thank you, Mrs Murray. Good afternoon to our witnesses. I work with a lot of parish councils across my constituency, which is predominantly rural. More often than not, parish councils come to me when there are issues with contentious planning applications and other development-led problems. One of the things that I see on a daily basis is almost a level of burnout among parish councillors, including last year losing an active, prominent chairman of the parish council—he had retired and wanted to Q give something back to his community, only to find that he was working longer hours on parish matters than he had been in the full-time job he had just retired from. Given that the Bill will place greater pressure on parishes—on neighbourhood planning and other matters—without creating another tier of professional politician, how can we rebalance the asks that are put on our parish and town councils? Jonathan, that is probably a question for you predominantly.
Well, that is a $60 billion question. That is an issue for parish councillors.
I have a few reflections. First, we need to promote their work more effectively, publicising what they can do and understanding their potential. Parish and town councils can deliver exciting and good things for their communities. They are not just a place to go and sit for a boring meeting; they are about getting out there to help communities. I think that was the experience of the pandemic, actually: a lot of parish councils rolled up their sleeves, as they often do, and made things happen. I remember that my previous chair, Ken Browse from Devon, who was a small parish councillor, used to get his tractor out and dig out the ditches when there was flooding in Devon. It is about trying to use that potential of councillors, rather than getting them borne down, as you say, under a sort of semi-professional thing. That is not what they are there for: they are there to represent their local constituents and do their bit to make their local places much better.
We would like to see some real promotion of parish councils. It is ironic that over the past year they have probably had much more of a national profile because of the Jackie Weaver affair, but I think national Government should be investing significant money in promoting the potential of parish councils and why people should get involved. The National Association of Local Councils has its Make a Change campaign going at the moment, which is trying to encourage more people to get involved and stand for election. We are putting out a lot of material and, I think it would be fair to say, getting a lot of interest. The average age of a parish councillor is something like 61. We would like to see that much reduced, and we would like to see people from different backgrounds getting involved. As with all things, it needs to be marketed and promoted.
The second point I would make is that principal authorities get something like £18 million from Government to support the work of the Local Government Association and build the capacity and competence of councillors. We are really grateful to the LGA, which we are able to work with in some limited areas to access some of that funding, but our sector and our 100,000 councillors need some support from Government too, to make sure they are able to deliver the things that are required in a sensible way. I think that that investment in councillors as local leaders and place shapers, making a difference for their communities, would help tackle burnout.
If burnout is an issue in town and county councils—which I can well acknowledge—imagine what it is like when you are dealing with an entirely volunteer network. We do not have a National Association of Local Councils; we do not have a parish clerk or a town clerk; we do not have an infrastructure organisation; we do not have an email address; we do not have an office; and we do not have a place to meet. When a neighbourhood forum is set up, it is set up from nothing, and it requires volunteers like us to put forward networks for London. London is unique in having a network that provides a bit of mutual support.
There are two points I would emphasise to make the life of being a civic volunteer something that you really want to do, and where you don’t burn out. One is to remove as many of the obstacles we spend much of our time fighting against as possible. We are not naive—of course life is going to be difficult—but there are pointless, and sometimes gratuitous, obstructions being put in the way of volunteers trying to do the right thing in their area. We have a range of evidence for that in relation to neighbourhood planning in London or from the research we have done. We do not have the time to go into it here, but it is available to the Committee if it wishes to look at it. The second is to put booster rockets under the support programme, which we have touched on already as being the single most important intervention—far more important than the Bill—so that it can be effectively delivered, ensuring that neighbourhood planning is one of the tools available to communities to take back more influence over planning.
Q That is very helpful. As parishes, town councils and volunteer networks—particularly in London—look to the future on the presumption that this Bill will become law, given the relatively low percentage of areas that have an active neighbourhood plan, how prepared are parish councils and town councils for taking on the work that is going to come down the line. In the case of London, how robust do you think the London boroughs can be?
I ask that through the lens of having been a London councillor for 12 years, before moving to the countryside and later having the privilege of being elected to the House of Commons. Thinking through some of the geography, the London borough I sat on was smaller geographically than some of the parishes in my constituency now. While I totally salute the efforts of volunteer networks across the capital, do we think that the geography in some parts of London, particularly inner-London boroughs, lends itself to those boroughs still having that primacy?
I hear what you are saying, and I am sure the populations of those boroughs and parishes are dramatically different. We need only point to the “city of villages” and Ebenezer Howard. The neighbourhoods of London are defined much more tightly than the boroughs, and many London neigh-bourhoods cross borough boundaries. One example is Crystal Palace, which is a very identifiable community, yet it crosses five London boroughs. It has been almost impossible to establish an effective boundary through the neighbourhood planning process, but that does not mean Crystal Palace is not Crystal Palace.
Crystal Palace identifies with itself, as do all the other neighbourhoods in London. We think there is significant scope below the borough level. There is an open question, which goes beyond the scope of the Bill, as to whether London might have too many boroughs, and the way they share services at the moment would suggest they acknowledge that—they share chief executives, legal services and all the rest of it.
London is an example of where there is still a need. There is the question of whether areas are willing to take on those responsibilities, linked to the issues of support, the attitude of professionals and politicians within the boroughs and the question of where this is going. What happens after they produce a neighbourhood plan? We would like to see the evolution anticipated by the Localism Act 2011 of neighbourhood forums evolving into the urban equivalent of a town or parish council, of which we have only one in London at Queen’s Park, which has a particular history. There are opportunities in this Bill to help the process mature and to create more sustainable models that might start with a neighbourhood forum producing a neighbourhood plan before growing into a much more all-encompassing, community-led form of governance.
It would be great if we could make it easier to set up local structures that are equivalent to parish and town councils. I would love to change the name to “community councils,” which would help to dissociate the sector from the connotations of the word “parish” and enable them better to reflect urban communities. Slimming down some of the legislation would make it easier to set that up. We would have community councillors and a community co-ordinator, otherwise known as a clerk. The clerks do a brilliant job, but they are often community co-ordinators. We obviously support the work Tony mentioned.
There has been a degree of uncertainty about neighbourhood planning over the past few years, and some people have been concerned that it is overlooked on appeal. The measures in the Bill might well help with that, and it is important to reboot and refresh the support package.
Finally, it would be good if we could boost the infrastructure levy for areas with neighbourhood plans. We are keen to work with the Government on driving greater numbers of parish and town councils to do neighbourhood plans. We share with our councils the things that have been done in so many places to tackle climate change and to promote health and wellbeing as part of the neighbourhood planning process.
Q I have a very quick last question, as I am aware another colleague wants to come in. Given that parish and town councils know their communities better than any other tier of government, who should set the level of housing need—or housing targets, to use a controversial phrase—for house building development? Should it be national Government, planning authorities or parish and town councils, or whatever is created in London below the borough level?
There are two issues here. The first is the numbers, and I do not think it can be done by just adding up all the local levels, because the nature of the housing market is such that you need a blend of strategic and local insight. It is about how we make sure the discussions and negotiations that take place mean there is an effective blend.
There are particular opportunities to strengthen the identification of particular needs that would not otherwise be met, whether they be house sizes and types; questions around affordability and rent; or the provision of alternative tenures—community land trusts and others. There is plenty of evidence now that neighbourhood plans are providing a much more refined insight into what is needed in areas, which can then carry appropriate weight through not just planning decisions but housing decisions. That would ensure that whatever the total number, a higher proportion are meeting the needs that are being expressed and are not just being used for investment or other less publicly useful purposes.
It has to be an interplay between the various levels. We need to change the culture around planning to get different tiers talking and engaging with each other. That often does not happen at the moment, and it would be really good to see better engagement between the various tiers coming out of this Bill. The experience of neighbourhood planning is people being engaged and consulted, and having an effective input. They understand the pressures for local housing and the need to meet the needs of their local residents and their young people. I am a glass half full man and it would be great to see better dialogue and interplay between the various tiers to deliver what we all need, which is more local housing.
Q How do you think the Bill could be strengthened to better support neighbourhood planning? What kind of governance structures would you want to see to achieve that?
We would like to see a Bill that gives more incentives to produce neighbourhood plans and ensures that neighbourhood forums have access to and can make decisions on the spending of the community infrastructure levy. We would like to see a Bill that removes some of the obstacles to neighbourhood plans coming forward where there are obstructive local planning authorities—principal authorities—by strengthening the legal duty on them to support neighbourhood planning and by putting more time limits and appeal mechanisms in place to navigate the process accordingly.
We would like to see the neighbourhood priorities statements being given more weight where they are to be taken forwards, so they cannot just be ignored, and to see them piloted. We would like to see the Bill come forward with a package of support that would scale up what has been learned from the experiences of the last 10 years, and a programme of support, with an emphasis on more funding but also better use of the existing funding, that was designed to enable those communities to come together to produce plans and tap into the expertise that they need at certain key stages. Above all, the support should enable them to learn from each other and build the neighbourhood planning movement, so that that becomes the norm across the country.
I agree very much with what Tony has said. I would offer a couple of additional points. First, recipients must be able to use the infrastructure levy flexibly for a range of uses. Linked to that, I would like to see in the Bill the extension of the general power of competence, which is proposed for the county combined authorities, to parish and town councils too, so that they can use some of that to support a range of things that they might not otherwise be able to support. That should make it easier for local councils to deliver for their communities and to ensure that they are spending money wisely on the right things locally.