Greetings, everyone. I am Richard Blyth, Head of Policy and Practice at the Royal Town Planning Institute. Following on from my recent talk at the Scribe Academy, I'd like to delve into the world of planning policies and the role of Town and Parish Councils.
The Importance of Getting Involved in National Policy
For some background, England's national policy is set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was established in 2012 and forms the cornerstone of national planning policy. This policy landscape has seen significant changes, particularly in 2018, and a minor change is expected, at the time of writing, next month on housing and renewable energy.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of Local Councils getting involved in shaping national planning policy. While government consultations receive numerous responses, the extent of representation remains questionable, often limited to specific groups. Making these national policy discussions more accessible and ensuring active participation by Local Councils is crucial, as choices made at the national level can significantly shape our communities' future.
Local Plans and Policy Purpose
The next level down is Local Plans, which are prepared by District or Unitary Councils. There are two main purposes of a local plan: to set local policy that legally must be followed when making decisions (unless there are other material considerations) and site allocations (drawing a red line around a piece of land for a particular use).
Site allocations is the issue that often affects rural England, where site allocations may be allocated to greenfield farming land for housing purposes, and this is something that can be quite controversial. If a site allocation for housing is made in a local plan, there is a presumption in favour of planning permission on that site. Equally, if a site does not have an allocation for housing and it is a greenfield site there is an overwhelming presumption against planning permission on that site.
So while national policy is vital for general principles, local policy is very much “where it’s at” for on-the-ground decision making.
The Adoption of Local Plans
Local planning procedures in the UK involve a meticulous legal process, typically consisting of two phases of public engagement, including interactions with Town and Parish Councils. District and Unitary Councils must substantiate their decisions with environmental, social, and economic data before the local plan is then submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for an examination in public.
This examination resembles a quasi-judicial proceeding, with an inspector hearing evidence from plan supporters and objectors. The examination is open to the public, and some individuals may be invited to present evidence based on their involvement in the process, particularly Town or Parish Councils, whose input is highly valued in helping the inspector form conclusions.
Subsequently, the inspector deliberates on the evidence and, around six months later, issues a report, either granting the council approval to adopt the plan or recommending changes, potentially leading to further consultations to ensure that any alterations are not imposed without notice. Once finalised, the plan is formally adopted.
The Process of Planning Applications
Planning applications are required for nearly all construction projects and even some changes in the use of buildings. While planning applications are typically assessed against the existing local plan, sometimes local plans become outdated, and in such cases, new national policies may take precedence, influencing decision-making.
Planning applications can be evaluated by planning officers, particularly for smaller projects, but larger and more contentious applications are reviewed by councillors in the planning committee. If applicants are dissatisfied with the outcome, they have the option to appeal to a planning inspector, similar to the process for local plans.
Approximately 5-6% of planning applications are appealed each year, and the Planning Inspectorate handles a substantial workload of around 40,000 appeals. Most appeals are conducted through written representations, but complex cases are subject to a planning inquiry, resembling a public examination. Following an appeal, the planning inspector has the authority to either approve or reject the appeal, without further recourse to the local planning authority.
It's crucial to note that Town and Parish Councils cannot appeal against the granting of planning permission; this process is reserved solely for applicants whose applications were denied.
Commenting on Planning Applications
When making comments on planning applications, it's crucial to base your views on national and local policies. Local planning authorities use these policies as the foundation for their decision-making process. Simply stating that you don't like a proposal isn't sufficient, instead objections should focus on potential changes to the collective landscape, especially in areas of high landscape value.
In some cases, you or your council members may be invited to speak at the planning committee regarding a specific application.
The Shift in Authority for Planning Policy
Recent changes in England’s planning landscape are tied to the Levelling Up Bill introduced by the government. One significant but lesser-known aspect of this bill is the shift in authority for planning policy formulation. Traditionally, local planning authorities have held the power to shape local policy, but this bill marks a change. For the first time in seven decades, local democracy's role in determining planning policy will be diminished, with ministers taking on this responsibility.
As a result, it has become essential for communities and local councils to actively engage in shaping national policy. While local plans will maintain their legal significance, particularly in terms of site allocations, this is an opportunity for local voices to influence the decisions made by the local planning authority. In this changing landscape, participation in national policy discussions becomes increasingly critical, as it will ultimately override local policies.
A Final Word on Neighbourhood Plans
Although national policy will be non negotiable, what national policy doesn't do is deal with individual sites. So the role of the neighbourhood plan would be talking about particular parts of the Town or Parish that you might want to see used for particular purposes.
Neighbourhood plans have been possible since 2012 and approximately 1000 neighbourhood plans have been enforced to date. They have a valuable role to play, such as allocating extra land for housing that goes beyond the local planning authority's decisions, contributing to meeting local housing needs. They can also designate land for community centres or other purposes. Additionally, some areas have introduced community infrastructure funding, an innovative approach to community development.
These plans are legally integrated into the local plan of the local planning authority, serving as an additional component, so it has the same status as the local plan in terms of the use of particular pieces of land.
Despite the obstacles brought about by recent policy changes, local planning remains an indispensable component of community development. By remaining informed, adapting to new circumstances, and actively participating, local authorities can ensure their influence on planning decisions remains strong, reflecting the true needs and desires of their communities.