Examination of Witnesses

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Jonathan Owen:

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.