Localism or parochialism?


John Holmes

Nothing changes: a new Government in office, a new major piece of legislation to reform and improve the planning system, and a hefty one at that with 510 pages, 215 clauses, 25 Schedules and weighing in at 1.5 kilos (or 3lbs for those who still deal in old money). Admittedly not all of the Localism Bill deals with planning matters but the latter are the focus of this blog edition.

After its tedious clause by clause examination by the House of Commons, the Bill last week went to the House of Lords for two days of general debate before its Committee Stage.

For those unfamiliar with the Bill (welcome back from the international space station), the planning proposals promise the greatest reform of the planning system since 1947 (not my words but those of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State), some main points being as follows.

Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies - a key plank of the Government's planning strategy, and in effect introduced within days of the coalition's formation in May 2010, with only a late challenge in the High Court that is keeping them on limited life support until the Bill is enacted.

A duty to co-operate in relation to the planning of sustainable development (whatever that is -please debate). This may, depending on one's reading of the finer print, mean that officers could no longer refuse to meet applicants and that councillors on the planning committee could take a position on a planning application without disbarring themselves from voting.

The much-maligned Community Infrastructure Levy is retained, with councils required to produce independently examined charging schedules. For many, we await these details as they will inevitably increase the cost of development.

Parish/Town Councils, or, if they don't exist, local community groups (set one up in a pub near you), will have the power to apply for neighbourhood development orders and neighbourhood development plans. These plans - subject to a local referendum - will set out policies for development in a particular area, whilst the orders grant planning permission enabling Parish/Town Councils to become planning bodies.

Unsurprisingly, whist the principles of the Bill have been widely welcomed, it is the latter neighbourhood planning aspect which has attracted the most criticism, with a risk of nimbyism and parochialism given the abandonment of regional structure and a new national planning policy framework proposed.

As one Peer commented during the Lords debate, if she was a resident of a village that wanted no change she would "recruit like-minded neighbours and make sure that we had no additional housing in the neighbourhood and would shift the issue onto other villages that were not so quick off the starting blocks".

And therein lies the danger to localism and neighbourhood planning, the risk that without strong guidance the system is taken over by the articulate narrow-minded.

Could it get worse? Beware third party rights of challenge, but that's another blog for another day.

John Holmes is Head of Planning at leading law firm Hill Dickinson. A nationally rated planning specialist and a member of the RTPI environment panel and the Law Society Planning Panel, Holmes has over 20 years' experience, having worked for the public sector before entering private practice in 1995. His specialisms include planning law, environmental law, compulsory purchase and highways matters. His work involves advising on applications, agreements, appeals and advocacy at Public Inquiries, Local Planning Inquiries, Compulsory Purchase inquiries and advising on environmental issues. He writes and lectures regularly on planning and related matters.