The best laid plans: How far do neighbourhood plans influence decision-making?

Guest blog by Andy Yuille, Lancaster University

Neighbourhood planning is intended to give people more control over the ways in which their neighbourhoods develop, to transfer power from remote ‘insiders’ to affected communities. But communities only gained the power to make plans: decisions on what actually gets planning permission lies elsewhere.

A review of a substantial selection of planning appeals involving neighbourhood plans to see how much influence they were having on planning decisions was undertaken by NALC. The review wasn’t comprehensive, and didn’t look at decisions made by local authorities – much more research is needed to build up a complete picture. But what was found makes unsettling reading for the 12 million people living in neighbourhood planning communities.

Planning applications are determined in accordance with a set of factors with varying influence and weight for decision-makers including the development plan of course but most prominently (in particular in relation to housing development), they also include:

  • Whether the local authority can demonstrate a five-year supply of easily deliverable housing land (or three years’ worth, if the plan allocates sites for housing) – and if not, how severe the shortfall is
  • Whether the plan is formally ‘made’ or still emerging
  • If still emerging, what stage it is at, whether it commands widespread community support and/or has significant outstanding objections, and how consistent it is with national policy – all of which are open to interpretation by decision-makers
  • Whether the plan conforms to an up-to-date Local Plan that is consistent with national policy
  • How open to interpretation the plan’s policies are

After an initial period of strong support for neighbourhood plans, these factors increasingly result in neighbourhood plan policies being outweighed by other considerations at appeal. District-wide shortfalls in housing land supply, the length of time it takes to get a plan ‘made’ and speculative developers beating the clock, conflicting interpretations of plan policies, and out-of-date or changing local plans combine to produce a ‘new normal’ in which applications that conflict with neighbourhood plans are often granted at appeal. In each situation, external influences result in control over neighbourhood development being denied to the community. Recent and proposed changes to the planning system (e.g. the housing delivery test and the promotion of new ‘garden communities’) seems set to decrease local community control over development further.

It could be argued that all this adds up to is national policy functioning as intended, enabling speculative development to take up the slack where the plan-led system is not delivering. However, this fundamentally undermines the conceptual basis for neighbourhood planning by favouring development per se over development which meets the expressed needs and wishes of communities. This can only erode public confidence in both neighbourhood planning and the planning system more widely.

If communities are to welcome new development because they feel in control, there must be a clear signal from government that plans made by local communities will have real effects. This will require significantly reducing the incidence of neighbourhood plans being overturned at appeal.

Note: this blog piece is based on the NALC report, “Where next for neighbourhood plans? Can they withstand the external pressures?