Ten things you need to know about neighbourhood planning

1. Neighbourhood planning is voluntary. The Localism Act introduces a new layer of local planning: the neighbourhood plan. The government says that neighbourhood plans will put communities “in the driving seat” for planning their local area. However, it is not compulsory for neighbourhoods to prepare a plan or for individuals to get involved if others in their neighbourhood decide to do so.

2. There are two end products for a neighbourhood planning process. The first is a neighbourhood plan, which sets out what development a community would like to go where, and what it might look like. The second is a neighbourhood development order, which allows a community to specify what sort of development could get built without requiring planning permission. 

3. Parish or town councils lead the process. If an area does not have a parish or town council then residents and/or businesses can establish a neighbourhood forum. There are rules about forums: they need a minimum of 21 people and they must be open to new members. Members should come from different places in the neighbourhood area defined by the forum and from different sections of that area’s community. No forum can overlap geographically with another. It is up to the relevant local authority to decide whether a proposed forum meets these criteria.

4. Neighbourhood plans must conform with the local plan. There has been some concern that neighbourhood plans will be hijacked by interest groups within a community who will pursue a minority interest. However, neighbourhood plans are not permitted to include something that is at odds with the local plan (or the national planning policy framework). Nor can they be used by a neighbourhood to oppose new development that a local authority has said is needed.

5. Local authorities decide on how neighbourhood plans will be inspected. One of the checks and balances in the process is that a neighbourhood plan is scrutinised by an independent inspector. Local authorities decide how this will be conducted.

6. Neighbourhoods have their say via a referendum. Once a plan has met the necessary legal and planning criteria it is put to a referendum: more than 50 per cent of people must vote in favour before it can be adopted.

7. An adopted neighbourhood plan is a legal document. If a neighbourhood plan is approved in a referendum then the local planning authority is obliged to adopt it as part of the set of plans for the neighbourhood.

8. Many neighbourhoods are keen. Neighbourhood planning is being trialled by 233 frontrunner projects, although 108 of these were only announced in March. The frontrunners each have £20,000 provided to the relevant local authority to help get neighbourhood planning off the ground. Places are beginning to share their early experiences, and it is clear that some communities are enthusiastic about getting the chance to try neighbourhood planning.

9. Neighbourhoods will be looking for help and support from local authorities. Preparing a plan will be time consuming for neighbourhoods. One frontrunner (Redcliffe in Bristol) reports that “there remains a long way to go in terms of filling out the necessary resources and structures to support this fledging planning revolution.” There are practical ways that councils can support neighbourhoods, for example, by sharing evidence with them and attending meetings. But local authorities also have limited capacity as they struggle to respond to budget cuts.

10. Elected members have a key role. The Department for Communities and Local Government says that one of the early lessons from the frontrunners is that elected members “play a key role and can help progress the work significantly – giving it profile with the community and within the wider council and helping to access resources for the work.”

This article appears in the next edition of c’llr magazine. Look out for it from early April, the special feature will be arts, culture and sport.