Blurred lines: local and neighbourhood plans and uncertainty in meeting housing needs

by Edward Dade – author of the All Things Neighbourhood Planning site:

The roles of local plans and neighbourhood plans in addressing strategic and non-strategic matters has been pretty clear in national policy. However the revised NPPF (2019) and recent changes to planning practice guidance (PPG) place greater emphasis on the role of neighbourhood plans in meeting the community’s ‘needs’, thereby potentially blurring the responsibilities of local and neighbourhood plans.

Research by Cheshire East Council showed that just 29% of neighbourhood plans had allocated sites for housing development. If Government wants NDPs to deliver housing, then it is vital that government clarifies the role of neighbourhood plans in meeting strategic housing needs.

Making site allocations is a strategic function of the local plan, which should meet the area’s needs in full. Strategic policies should provide “a clear strategy for bringing sufficient land forward, and at a sufficient rate, to address objectively assessed needs over the plan period…” and include “allocating sufficient sites to deliver the strategic priorities of the area” (NPPF para 23). Local plans can include both strategic policies and policies to address non-strategic matters, whereas neighbourhood plans should contain only ‘non-strategic’ policies (NPPF para 18). Neighbourhood plans should “support the delivery of strategic policies” and should “shape and direct development that is outside of these strategic policies” (NPPF para 13).

However non-strategic policies “can include allocating sites” (NPPF para 28). As such, a site allocation policy can be either strategic or non-strategic; presumably depending on whether the allocation forms part of the overall strategy to meet the area’s housing needs or not. Thus a neighbourhood plan can make site allocations which are in addition to those already allocated by the local plan.

The new duty on local plans to set a housing requirement for Neighbourhood Areas implies a role for neighbourhood planning in meeting the objectively assessed needs for housing. The approach to setting the housing requirement should reflect the overall strategy for the pattern and scale of development as expressed in both the PPG and NPPF. Meeting the area’s housing needs in full is a strategic function of the local plan, therefore this responsibility cannot be directly passed to neighbourhood plans. Where a local plan is up-to-date, the housing requirement for a Neighbourhood Area cannot logically form a part of the Local Housing Need figure. The local plan and neighbourhood plans cannot both ‘plan’ for the area’s housing needs  – as this would likely lead to unnecessary duplication of policies and re-allocation of sites, which would seemingly conflict with national policy and guidance. It is therefore unclear precisely what need the housing requirement for Neighbourhood Areas should address.

It gets more intriguing when a two-part local plan model is considered. The example of Uppingham is useful – they made housing allocations to meet the target set by the Core Strategy (i.e. ‘part 1’ of the local plan) – although this case was subject to a lengthy legal wrangle but came through. So while national policy stops short of actually proposing a two-tier system a strategy which passes the responsibility of allocating sites onto NDPs is unlikely to find support from local plan Inspectors. The soundness tests require local plans to as a minimum meet the areas’ objectively assessed needs (NPPF para 35) and great emphasis is on deliverability; NDPs introduce uncertainty there as their preparation lies outside the local planning authority’s control.