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.