Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the British Retail Consortium (L 122)

1. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) is the lead trade association representing the whole range of retailers, from independents through to the large multiples and department stores, selling a wide selection of products through town centre, out of town, neighbourhood, rural and online stores.

2. On 1 February 2011, the BRC submitted written evidence to the Localism Bill Committee highlighting the retail sector’s key priorities for the Localism Bill. The purpose of this supplementary evidence is to focus on our main priorities and concerns around neighbourhood planning.

Overview

3. The BRC recognises and supports, in principle, the Government’s commitment for the new national planning policy framework to be more ‘localist’ in approach, with neighbourhood planning a key element of the planning reforms.

4. We accept that neighbourhood plans will have a crucial role in the determination of planning applications in local areas. It is right and proper that local areas and neighbourhoods should be able to determine the path of local development – indeed most local communities and neighbourhoods are well placed to shape and determine the path of development in their local area.

5. However, it is vital that neighbourhood planning is compatible with sustainable economic development and does not add another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy for affected businesses. Furthermore, decisions made in relation to neighbourhood planning must in all cases be based on robust evidence and take full account of the views of all members of local communities, including businesses.

Making Neighbourhood Planning Work – Retail’s Priorities

A) Supporting and incentivising sustainable economic development through neighbourhood planning.

B) Enabling businesses to participate actively throughout the neighbourhood planning process.

C) Ensuring that the process for making neighbourhood plans is independent, evidence based, and sufficiently flexible.

D) Providing appropriate enforcement of neighbourhood development plans and orders that do not adhere to the planning framework.

E) Ensuring that the costs of preparing neighbourhood plans do not restrict local participation.

F) Consulting relevant stakeholders on the Regulations and accompanying guidance on neighbourhood planning.

Sustainable Economic Development

6. The Localism Bill provides that that the content of neighbourhood plans must have regard to national planning policies and advice in guidance and be in general conformity with the strategic priorities set out in the local development plan. However, it remains to be seen how national and local strategic policies will be interpreted at the neighbourhood level. It is therefore entirely possible that, in future, neighbourhood plans could f rustrate the policy aspirations of a Local Planning Authority as well as those policies outlined in the new national planning policy frame w or k.

7. It is vital that the development of neighbourhood plans is compatible with sustainable economic development and growth in the local area. We welcome the Government’s assurance that neighbourhood plans will need to respect local strategic priorities as well as the overall national presumption in favour of sustainable development. At this stage, however, it is not clear how "sustainable development" will be defined as part of the new planning framework, and precisely what status it will have in the planning process.

8. In order to prevent local communities and neighbourhoods from ignoring the sustainability agenda when formulating neighbourhood development plans and orders, a minimum standard for "sustainable development" should be set clearly at a national level. The BRC would be very concerned if the new planning framework left it to local communities and neighbourhoods to define. This is particularly concerning if local plans are not in place from the commencement of the new planning framework and/or Localism Bill.

Recommendation 1 : To provide businesses with greater clarity and certainty, t he role and status of the new national planning policy framework should be referenced in the Localism Bill – this would allow the importance of sustainable development to be clearly embedded in the Bill without needing to resolve in legislation a definition.

9. The Government should incentivise parish councils and neighbourhood forums to pursue economic development. It is not sufficient to require these bodies to have regard to the national planning policies and guidance, local strategic priorities and other regulatory requirements, as currently drafted in the Localism Bill when developing neighbourhood plans.

10. The Government has committed to introducing a number of local growth initiatives such as the Business Increase Bonus, Local Retention of Business Rates and Tax Increment Finance. While the BRC recognises and supports the benefits that these initiatives will deliver for the local economy, we question how they will have a real tangible impact for neighbourhood forums and even parish councils. The right incentives need to be put in place to ensure that that these bodies develop policies specifically designed to promote economic growth and to accept new development in their local area. This is critical to ensure that localism, and specifically the introduction of neighbourhood planning, does increase the risk of nimbyism.

Recommendation 2: The Government should incentivise parish councils and neighbourhood forums to pursue and support new economic developments in their local area.

Business Engagement

11. The Localism Bill should allow for greater business involvement throughout the entire neighbourhood planning process. This is particularly important for local areas which consist of a large number of commercial properties, such as outoftown business or retail parks.

12. The retail sector is already heavily engaged in local areas, with effective mechanisms and relationships in place to maintain successful engagement with local authorities and partnerships such as Business Improvement Districts. As noted in our previous submission, local engagement is essential to the success of retailers’ commercial activities and their operations. Therefore, we believe that enabling retail businesses to participate in the neighbourhood planning process will help to ensure that there is a longer term vision for neighbourhoods, with the necessary emphasis on removing, rather than introducing, existing barriers to growth and development.

13. However, we are concerned that the Bill, as currently drafted, does not provide a robust opportunity for businesses to participate or have influence in the formulation of a neighbourhood development plan or a neighbourhood development order. In our view, there should be a meaningful mechanism to give businesses the opportunity to express their views before a neighbourhood development plan or order is made.

14. The process for making a neighbourhood development plan or neighbourhood development order should require local residents and businesses to be consulted on a draft proposal before a referendum is held. We believe that consultation is crucial so that the local business community is given the opportunity to review the proposals in the draft plan and, where possible, identify whether any of the proposals will have any unintended consequences on economic development and growth in that local area.

Recommendation 3: To enable businesses to actively participate in the neighbourhood planning process, the Government should introduce a requirement that:

· Local Planning Authorities should notify local residents and businesses as soon as a draft neighbourhood plan or order has been submitted for approval; and

· Local Planning Authorities should consult on a draft neighbourhood development plan or order with all local parties, including businesses, before a referendum is held.

Neighbourhood Planning Process

15. The Localism Bill provides that the Local Planning Authority will be the body responsible for formally making neighbourhood plans and has a crucial role in checking that certain basic statutory requirements and regulations, such as having regard to national policies and guidance, have been met by the proposed neighbourhood plan.

16. We recognise and support the role that Local Planning Authorities will have in the neighbourhood planning process. At the same time we are concerned that with Local Planning Authorities already frequently underresourced and skilled, the provisions in the Bill should not add any unnecessary burdens and/or unrealistic expectations.

a) Independent Examination

17. There are also some concerns around the process for independent examination of the draft neighbourhood development plan or order. The legislation provides that an independent examiner must be independent and possess the appropriate qualifications. An examiner cannot be, for example, a person employed by central or local government or a person with a financial interest.

18. However, we understand that it is possible that a private planning consultant could become an ‘independent examiner’ and be responsible for scrutinising a draft neighbourhood plan. If this is the case, we have serious concerns that the independence and impartiality of some consultants to give advice to a Local Planning Authority about whether the draft plan/order accords with the basic conditions and other regulatory requirements could be called into question. In our view, the Planning Inspectorate has long been respected for their efficiency and independence and, as such, a qualified Planning Inspector should be required to carry out the independent examination.

Recommendation 4: The Government should:

· maintain the independent Planning Inspectorate as part of the new planning policy framework; and

· give the Planning Inspectorate the responsibility of examining draft neighbourhood development plans and orders to ensure they conform to national policies and local strategic priorities.

b) Referendums

19. Neighbourhood development plans and orders should only be formally made with the transparent support of the local electorate. In the absence of specific requirements which oblige the Local Planning Authority to adequately notify or consult local residents and businesses on the draft proposal, we are concerned that a national development plan or order could be made without clearly demonstrating the broad support of local residents and businesses. This does not accord with democratic principles and could act to undermine the clarity and certainty which businesses need to operate and invest in local areas.

Recommendation 5: The Government should consider introducing a minimum turnout requirement of at least 10 per cent of the local electorate for any referendum on neighbourhood planning.

c) Amending or rescinding neighbourhood development orders

20. The Bill provides that a neighbourhood development order grants planning permission for a development specified in the order. We understand that, once in place, there is no right to revoke or even amend the original neighbourhood development order. Therefore, if an important element is left out, a mistake had been made or an important local area was omitted then a parish council or neighbourhood forum would have to go through the entire process for making a new neighbourhood development order, at a potentially significant cost.

21. We believe the Government should introduce a new power for the Secretary of State or Local Planning Authority to revoke a neighbourhood development order – we note that a similar right exists in the Bill in relation to neighbourhood development plans. At the very least, there should be scope in the legislation for neighbourhood forums or parish councils to initiate an amendment to an original order relatively easily otherwise this simply creates yet another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

Recommendation 6: The Government should consider introducing:

· a power for the Secretary of State, or the Local Planning Authority (with the consent of the Secretary of State) to revoke a neighbourhood development order; and

· a power for the Local Planning Authority to amend an original neighbourhood development order that is initiated by the neighbourhood forum or parish council.

Costs

22. We understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government has estimated that the costs of preparing a neighbourhood development plan or order could vary from £5000 to £250,000. It is difficult to envisage how parish councils will have the resources to fund anything but simple neighbourhood development plans or orders. It is expected that the private sector, mainly developers and property owners, will provide the major source of funding for neighbourhood plans but, of course, this could raise issues about the impartiality and independence of the parish council or neighbourhood forum.

Recommendation 7: The cost of preparing neighbourhood development plans and orders should not discourage local participation.

Enforcement

23. The enforcement of neighbourhood development plans and orders will be crucial going forward . At this stage, it is not immediately clear how the neighbourhood planning provisions in the Bill or the national planning policy framework will be enforced on local authorities, parish councils or neighbourhood forums that do not adhere to the legislative provisions and/or national framework . Currently, there is very little enforcement, if ever, of planning policy statements. This must change if, as is the Government’s objective, neighbourhood plans are to be truly representative of the needs of the local area.

Consultation

24. Much of the detail around neighbourhood planning will be outlined in the Regulations and accompanying guidance which we understand will be published at the time the Localism Bill achieves Royal Assent. We would urge the Government to consult businesses and other relevant stakeholders on a draft of the regulations and guidance well in advance of their commencement date. This is essential to give businesses an adequate opportunity to comment and identify, where possible, any potential adverse impacts for business and growth.

February 2011