Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Highgate Society (L 51)

1. The Highgate Society is the recognised Civic Amenity Society for the whole Highgate area, covering the N6 postal district of London. It has 1,400 members. The Society was established in 1966; since then it has been active in local planning, transport and open space issues and has worked closely with the two local authorities covering its core area. Its Environment Committee and its Planning Working Group include active and retired professionals in the planning and related fields. Highgate itself is an historic "village" community dating back many centuries.

2. Introduction and summary: We welcome the intention of empowering local communities. This has long been an aspiration of active community groups, who have felt that the planning system is stacked against them and that local authorities have too often regarded them as irrelevant to the planning process, rather than as a major resource of expertise, professional skills and local knowledge. However, we have questions and concerns about a range of aspects of the Bill, including:

· The exclusion of communities - such as Highgate – which cross local authority boundaries

· The definition of ‘neighbourhoods"

· The absence of practical help for neighbourhoods

· The absence of the Community Third Party Right of Appeal

· The assumption of more development, rather than less

· Sustainable development

· Potential for conflicts with existing protection presented by the Community Right to Build, Neighbourhood Plans and the Community Right to Buy

· The power for communities to seek Listed Status

· A lower threshold for the requirement for community consultation

· Stronger enforcement powers

3.1 Communities which cross local authority boundaries: the Bill’s provision that "communities" and "neighbourhoods" should be contained within one local authority simply does not fit many urban neighbourhoods and will prevent Highgate, for one, taking part in this laudable attempt to extend local democracy. Like many urban areas, the High Street which is at the heart of our community is also the boundary between two local authorities – the London Boroughs of Camden and Haringey. At our northern and southern edges, we also include parts of the London Boroughs of Barnet and Islington. Past experience has taught us that holistic planning for our area is therefore impossible and the boroughs’ lack of communication – even with each other – has led to many major problems and inconsistencies. It would be a terrible shame – and a great opportunity missed – if we were also prevented from creating a meaningful neighbourhood forum and plan (as provided for in the Bill) by the proposed legislative ban on communities which cross local authority boundaries. We urge you to lift this ban.

3.2. Instead, we suggest that a more appropriate and effective geographical area to be deemed a "neighbourhood" in urban metropolitan communities is the postal district – in our case N6. Postal districts were historically set up around established villages and inner suburbs and so correspond to the names people typically use to describe where they live e.g. NW5 = Kentish Town, N10 = Muswell Hill, N8 = Crouch End and so on. They also often closely correspond to Conservation Areas. We ask you to consider this as an alternative model to the proposed local authority-bound definition.

4. Neighbourhoods: the definition of "neighbourhoods" is far too loosely defined: it appears to be predicated on the rural Parish Council, rather than the reality of how identifiable urban communities have developed historically and how they work today. Urban areas often contain a number of diverse "communities" with different points of view and interests and will not have clearly defined boundaries. We are concerned about the streets and estates which might "fall between the cracks" of the self-defined neighbourhood groups that the Bill suggests will set up unelected neighbourhood forums. Our suggestion in 3.2 of neighbourhoods clearly defined by postal districts would ameliorate this problem to some extent.

5. Practical help for neighbourhoods: while many established amenity groups, such as The Highgate Society, have wide experience of the planning system, many new neighbourhood groups will comprise interested and active people who have no experience or knowledge of what will no doubt remain a complex planning system. The proposed legislation appears to provide no means of giving advice, training, support and liaison for such groups. This is essential if the system is not collapse quickly for lack of information and particularly important if neighbourhood groups and forums are to be as representative as possible. Local authority planning departments are already undergoing major cuts and will be unable to add this to their remit. We suggest that the existing network of civic amenity societies, with their unparalleled experience of community engagement in the planning system, should be helped and empowered to advise and encourage new community groups to form their own neighbourhood forums and plans.

6. Community Third Party Right of Appeal: this was a key commitment of the incoming Government. It would have been a key tool for communities in securing good planning for their areas – indeed, as long-standing members of the Civic Trust, we were aware that the absence of such a right was one of the most important concerns of active community groups. That it has been abandoned - when a simple and workable scheme (utilising Planning Inspectorate panels) could have been implemented - is in our view a fundamental breach of human rights. It is manifestly inequitable that a developer should have the right of appeal against a refusal, yet residents and community groups have no other recourse than the normally unaffordable process of judicial review. We urge you to include the Third Party Right of Appeal in the proposed legislation.

7.1 More development, not less: it is our understanding that the legislation allows communities to request more development, but not to request less. Local authority core strategies may not necessarily be for the benefit of particular neighbourhoods and, where they involve more development, it appears that neighbourhood groups will have little power to object to the large scale developments that may be forced upon them. This cannot but suggest that the underlying rationale of the Bill is primarily to secure more development, rather than good development. It is also a statement that "we do not really trust local communities to take a responsible and proactive approach towards regeneration and development".

7.2 Far from being "Nimbys", it is our experience, from close liaison with other amenity societies across London, that such groups have in fact often been the main drivers of regeneration, holistic planning and high-quality new development in their areas. Their argument is rarely for less development, but for better development. We therefore urge that the spirit of community engagement which is asserted to be the driving force behind this Bill be observed by dropping the requirement that communities may only request more development.

8. Presumption in favour of sustainable development: If we understand correctly, this has not appeared in either the Bill or associated documentation, despite statements that it would. If so, we welcome this reversal as this presumption would merely allow a developer to argue that his development was "sustainable" and employ consultants to "prove" it, which many local authorities may not have the expertise to refute. However, we would strongly suggest that that a provision be included that "all developments must be sustainable".

9. Predetermination: We welcome the proposals to allow Ward Councillors the freedom to campaign, express views and vote on planning and other issues of concern to their constituents, without fear of disqualification or penalties. We also suggest that Heritage Champions be given a greater ability to campaign on historic environment-related issues through a more formal remit within the planning system.

10. Community Right to Build: This could, in the hands of persuasive single-interest groups, work to the disadvantage of a community. In whatever form it finally appears, it must in no way overrule existing Conservation Area, Listed Building or other Heritage protection.

11.1 Neighbourhood Plans: Similarly, these must in no way overrule existing Conservation Area, Listed Building or other heritage protection. It also appears, from our understanding of the documentation, that the neighbourhood plan will override national policy where there is a conflict. While the concept is a potentially powerful one for local communities, and could work to their advantage given a responsible approach on all sides, we are concerned that it could greatly increase the frequency of developers resorting to the courts in an effort to override whichever Plan does not suit them, and then resorting to the courts to, in effect, fulfil their aims; the principle therefore seems to us a dangerous one as it stands.

11.2 The Bill does not require Neighbourhood Plans to be fully compliant with the LDF. Although local community groups such as ours could in theory stand to benefit by Neighbourhood Development Orders which enable communities to permit development without planning permission, in practice this could equally lead to anarchy in the system, the collapse of holistic planning for the benefit of a whole area, and the reduction of the LDF – which will have been democratically formulated with detailed community input following a public inquiry in which those communities will have participated – to an irrelevance. We believe this to be a dangerous and ill-considered provision and that it should be dropped.

12. Community Right to Buy: While laudable, and in principle to be welcomed, it will be difficult enough for communities in better-off areas to raise the large sums needed to purchase such assets, let alone those in poorer or deprived areas. A mechanism for enabling communities to draw on sources of funding, for example as grants or longer-term loans, or to lease from the local authorities on favourable terms, must be in place if it is to be possible for local groups to ensure the long-term use of valued local buildings for the community. National Lottery funding would clearly be one source.

13. Assets of Community Value (ACV): We welcome the intention to enable the local community to nominate these and to get the opportunity to buy if they come onto the market, although the same reservations apply here as to the Community Right to Buy (12). Too many assets of community value have in the past been lost against the clear wishes of those communities. Therefore, we suggest that designation of an asset as an ACV should imply an appropriate level of affordability should it come onto the market. Otherwise, the power will be meaningless. We are unclear about the definition of an ACV. If it is purely "land", then this will be of little help to most urban communities; it must include local assets of any description.

14.1 Impact on heritage and the historic and natural environment: The protection of the local historic environment, including statutorily and locally listed buildings, Conservation Areas, scheduled and unscheduled archaeological sites, heritage, and ecologically valuable open spaces, etc., is of major importance to local communities, and the weakness of their protection in past decades has been an enormous source of anger. The Bill must therefore in no way overrule existing protections such as the new and strong PPS5, and should aim to enhance them.

14.2 In the same connection, communities have in the past sought Listed Status for buildings of importance to them, but the decision has always been out of their hands, being solely the decision of a sometimes too removed English Heritage. This has led in too many cases to valued local buildings being demolished while communities looked on powerlessly. We therefore urge that the legislation should specifically require that, when communities seek Listed Status for a local asset, there should be a presumption that such status will be granted. We believe that this power would be used responsibly and to a limited extent. This would demonstrate the Government’s commitment to place a degree of trust in the community groups they are seeking to engage more proactively in the planning process.

15. General Power of Competence: While in principle the power for local authorities to do anything not specifically prohibited is to be welcomed, there could be justifiable concerns at the community level that this power could be abused, for example by "bulldozing" through Councillors’ "pet projects", whether or not they are wanted by the community. We therefore recommend that the exercise of such powers should be subject to a referendum, Borough-wide if appropriate or else within the formally-constituted neighbourhood within which it is proposed.

16. Community Infrastructure Levy: We welcome the intention of ensuring that a proportion of the funds raised should be passed to the neighbourhood where the development takes place, though trust that rules regarding the use of the funds will be clearly defined.

17.1 Consultation: It is proposed that developers of major schemes (houses in excess of 200 units, and other developments in excess of 10,000 sq.m.) should be obliged to consult with the local community before submitting applications. This is completely inadequate, and will benefit very few communities, not least because a high proportion of such developments will be on Greenfield sites where there are no coherent communities. It is in any case the experience of amenity groups that it is precisely the developers of schemes of this scale who are more likely to consult with communities; the problem is with developers of smaller but still significant schemes who all too often regard the local community with contempt and see them only as an obstacle.

17.2 The threshold for requiring community consultation must be much lower and we suggest that the requirement be amended to provide that:

· developers are required to consult with the local community when any "significant" development is proposed;

· "significant" should include demolition and rebuild of any property in a Conservation Area, alterations to buildings in Conservation Areas which will impact on its context or setting, or any new build in Conservation Areas;

· that a lower site threshold be set in non-Conservation Areas. They should, in our view, have the same ability to enhance, protect and improve their communities as those in protected areas;

· that English Heritage should be required to consult with the local community when their views are sought on development proposals, in order to ensure that their decision is informed by the knowledge and aspirations of that community.

18. Enforcement: We strongly welcome the proposals to give Local Authorities stronger enforcement powers, and to raise the time period for taking action to four years from date of discovery of the breach, rather than from when the breach was committed, which was a source of great anguish for community groups. However, we believe that the provisions relating to enhanced enforcement powers over illegal advertising are inadequate. These powers are limited to "persistent" offenders, which could lead to the problem getting out of control, when it could have been prevented at an early stage by immediate action.

February 2011