Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Kingston Seymour Parish Council (L 150)

The Parish of Kingston Seymour

Kingston Seymour is a small semi-rural parish lying adjacent to the Severn Estuary between Clevedon and Weston- super-Mare. It has some 400 inhabitants and although it boasts little in the way of facilities it is a strong and vibrant community with an agricultural base and hosting a considerable number of small businesses.

The Parish Council has always taken its responsibilities seriously and aims to comment on all proposals that directly or indirectly affect the welfare of the community. This Bill is one such matter.

Summary

(i) Kingston Seymour Parish Council welcomes the Localism Bill and its intention to return real powers, duties and responsibilities to local communities. (ii) The provisions to abolish the regional tier of planning and to strengthen the enforcement regime are particularly warmly welcomed. (iii) Proposals to grant general powers of competence, give local communities much more say in the planning process, amend the Community Infrastructure Levy, finalise national planning statements in Parliament and ease the problems which have arisen around pre-determination and bias, are also welcome. (iv) A guarded welcome is given to proposals for neighbourhood planning, local referendums and the reform of the Standards regime. (v) However, it has a number of concerns, particularly around the proposals for neighbourhood planning and NDOs, local referendums, assets of community value and the criminalisation of those who breach regulations relating to registers or declarations of interest. (vi) KSPC would welcome clarification, via secondary legislation or other appropriate mechanism, of the status of Parish Plans and the Government’s intentions regarding third party rights of appeal. (vii) Finally, the Government’s commitment to the overarching principle of sustainable development, even if it is to be stated elsewhere, should also be clearly stated in this Bill. General comments

Kingston Seymour Parish Council (KSPC) welcomes the Localism Bill and its intention to return real powers, duties and responsibilities to local communities. However, it has the following overarching concerns:

· It is not clear whether local communities - especially very small ones - actually want these responsibilities; although, correctly, the Bill does not distinguish between communities of different sizes there does need to be an explicit recognition that for some communities the status quo will be the preferred option

· It is not clear whether communities will have within themselves – or be able to access – sufficient expertise, time and resources to make the proposed new system work. Without the detail on resourcing (especially funding) which will be the subject of secondary legislation it is difficult to assess the viability of the proposals.

Specific comments
1 "POWERS TO THE PEOPLE"

1.1.General powers of competence

KSPC welcomes this proposal in principle, although it remains to be seen what is meant by a "qualifying council" . This could be linked to "Quality Status", in which case more local councils might be encouraged to become "Quality Councils". At present the expense and effort of doing so is difficult to justify when there seems to be little if any benefit from the status. However, in this event, the electoral requirement should not be so onerous as to preclude councils with a small proportion of co-opted rather than elected members from applying.

1.2. Neighbourhood Plans

1.2.1. Principle

These proposals are welcome in principle and there is scope here for real partnership working with the local planning authority. The requirement for NDPs to be initiated by the community (NPA) but taken into account by the LPA in the determination of planning applications would ensure that communities have a proper degree of influence in the planning process, but also that they would have to shoulder the burdens of ownership and accountability.

In recent years there has been a move towards consultation at an earlier stage of the planning process and this Bill develops this further. However, the profession has a mountain to climb. At present local councils often feel completely sidelined in the planning process, and there is a common perception (not always accurate) that consultation is somewhat tokenistic, with little likelihood of effecting any major alterations to a draft document.

However, KSPC has the following concerns:

(i) It is doubtful whether small communities (such as Kingston Seymour) are best placed to make planning decisions in the wider public interest. Most planning proposals are to some extent controversial and in a small community neighbour could be pitched against neighbour in a way that would be personally distressing and could seriously undermine community cohesion. In advance of more detailed guidance on process, it is difficult to assess whether the requirement for an NDP to comply with national guidance and the Development Plan would be sufficient to safeguard a local council against accusations of favouritism, bias, NIMBYism etc.

(ii) It would probably be more difficult than it is already to recruit parish councillors, who might be reluctant to shoulder these additional responsibilities and to put themselves "in the firing line". There is also a danger that extreme views or personal "agendas" would be disproportionately represented on the Council, to a greater extent than is already the case.

(iii) The whole system will break down unless a simple, upfront, robust and reliable funding mechanism is put in place. Small communities which cannot raise large amounts through the precept will need additional subsidy (like small schools). Given the size of the national debt and with local authority funds already under so much pressure, is this a credible expectation?

1.2.2. Process

Although KSPC notes that the proposed process for drawing up a NDP has been criticised by some as too complex, it seems reasonable and it is difficult to see how it could be simplified.

Over the last 10 years, many towns and parishes have drawn up Village Design / Character Statements and, more recently, Town or Parish Plans. KSPC’s Village Character Statement has supplementary planning guidance status; the Parish Plan – shortly to be published – will have no formal status. However, the Parish Plan could probably form the basis of a NDP, which would then of course be part of the Development Plan.

It would be helpful if secondary legislation could indicate whether or not a Parish Plan would be regarded as an appropriate foundation for a NDP, and what sort of assistance (advice, funding) would be available to local communities to enable them to undertake the work involved in the updating and conversion process.

If there is a real appetite for neighbourhood planning, the role of professional planning officers could change quite dramatically – they would be strategists, advisers, enablers, monitors and enforcers but no longer, at local level, plan-makers.

KSPC wonders whether the profession is ready for this, and to what extent they have been involved in the discussions that have resulted in this Bill.

1.3. Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build

As KSPC understands it, NPAs will be empowered to require LPAs to make Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs). An NDO will effectively grant planning permission to the relevant neighbourhood area for a specified development or class of development. NDOs will have to comply with national planning guidance and the local authority’s development plan - but not – oddly – the NDP. This is probably an oversight but ought to be rectified.

KSPC gives a guarded welcome to the proposed NDOs and CRBOs. Their precise range of applications needs to be clarified in secondary legislation.

The concerns expressed at (2) above apply equally here. Additionally, since a CRBO can be initiated from outside the community and by corporate as well as community entities, communities will need to be protected from being swamped by proposals from highly professional, aggressive and well-funded organisations backed by major developers.

1.4. Pre-application consultation on major projects

KSPC welcomes this. It is good to see something which is currently good practice but not a legal requirement made mandatory. The opportunity for increased public involvement is welcomed but there will be implications for the cost (higher) and timescale (longer) of such developments.

1.5. Local Referendums

KSPC gives a guarded welcome to this proposal, and is pleased to see that there will be some mechanism (as yet unspecified) to enable parish councils to meet the costs involved. KSPC agrees that if a local authority resolves to hold one, this would be appropriate. However, it is concerned that in a small community the 5% threshold may be too low and open to abuse. Even more worrying is the proposal that just one member could trigger a referendum; this seems most unwise as it could be exploited by an individual with a particular axe to grind and is fundamentally undemocratic.

1.6. Community Right to Challenge

This idea is very much in tune with the Big Society agenda but is not likely to be of much interest or relevance to small communities like this one. However KSPC considers that it is important that the business case should be financially / delivery driven, with politics kept out of the equation.

1.7. Assets of community value

This proposal has some attractions but also raises profound concerns. The intention is laudable enough, but to be prevented from selling land or property, however highly valued by the community, at a time of one’s choosing and to a preferred buyer must come very close to breaching an owner’s human rights. It might also have the unintended consequence of drying up the benefactor market. An alternative process which would achieve the same ends but might perhaps be more acceptable to the owners of valued assets would be to put in place a system comparable to that designed to prevent the loss to the nation of important works of art, ie to let the sale take its course but then suspend it to allow time for a community organisation to match the market price. This would have the additional advantage that a community would know how much funding would be required, and might give a large community (such as a town) a realistic opportunity of acquiring the asset. However, in small communities, it is doubtful whether either the proposed process or this alternative would be of much assistance – the timescale required for a community to raise funds through grants etc would probably be unreasonably long.

2. OTHER CHANGES TO THE PLANNING SYSTEM

2.1. Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies

KSPC warmly welcomes the Government’s intention to abolish the regional tier of planning. It has been blatantly undemocratic, with the top-down imposition of housing targets particularly resented. Nevertheless it is accepted that some facilities and strategic infrastructure (eg major hospitals, motorways, airports etc) will continue to require discussion and agreement on a wider scale, and the new Duty to Cooperate is a reasonable and much more proportionate alternative. The mechanisms for this (Local Enterprise Partnerships?) need to be put in place swiftly if there is not to be a damaging policy vacuum.

2.2. Abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC)

KSPC welcomes the decision to abolish the IPC and return its powers to the Planning Inspectorate, with the decisions taken by the Secretary of State. However more information is needed before councils will feel completely reassured as to the weight to be given to local views.

2.3. National Planning Policy Statements

KSPC welcomes the decision that national policy documents dealing with various classes of infrastructure development will in future require Parliamentary approval before they take effect. Please note that one of the implications of giving real planning powers to local communities is that local councils and Neighbourhood Forums should be consulted along with LPAs when national planning policy statements are being drawn up/ revised. To save costs this could be done through LPAs, but only if the present 6-week consultation period was extended to 8 or even 10 weeks.

2.4. Community Infrastructure Levy

KSPC welcomes the provisions to amend the CIL, and in particular the proposals that LPAs should be entitled to use CIL funds not only for the provision of new infrastructure but for its ongoing maintenance, and, most importantly, that a proportion of CIL funds is to be spent in the neighbourhood in which the development in question is taking place. This could be a good vehicle for facilitating delivery of actions in a Parish Plan (or NDP).

2.5. Restricting the role of the Planning Inspectorate with reference to local plans

KSPC welcomes these provisions.

2.6. Tightening up the enforcement regime

KSPC warmly welcomes these proposals, which are long overdue. The deliberate abuse of the planning system is one of the biggest problems faced by all local councils, which are helpless in the face of the combined effect of individuals "playing the system", neighbours who fear a backlash if they report suspected breaches and planning departments which have neither the resources nor the powers to pursue enforcement issues to any real effect. It is little wonder that the law-abiding majority are so cynical and so frustrated. The new powers to be given to LPAs to tighten up the enforcement regime should be a real help – retrospective applications should be accepted only in exceptional cases. The new rules to prevent the acquisition of immunity from enforcement by concealment – whether deliberate or by inaction – are also welcome.

3. OTHER GOVERNANCE ISSUES

3.1. Standards Regime

KSPC has reservations about these proposals. Although the existing system has its flaws, and is unduly bureaucratic and heavy-handed, the principles which underpin it are sound and there are risks attached to "localising" the standards regime. The Bill makes it clear that high standards of conduct will still be required, as will registers of interests. Why abandon the national Model Code? If authorities are invited to adopt their own voluntary codes, there is a potential for inconsistency both of definitions (eg in the degree of kinship or affinity deemed to present a conflict of interests) and of application across the country. The big change is that a breach of the rules on registration / declaration of interests will be a criminal offence, but what constitutes a breach in one part of the country might not in another. Additionally, it will be difficult for the courts to decide whether a breach of the rules is intentional (and should be regarded as a criminal offence) or accidental (genuine oversights should not attract such penalties). Finally, the regime should not be so threatening that people are deterred from standing as councillors.

3.2. New rules on predetermination and bias

KSPC welcomes the new provisions. This issue has been a problem in recent years, especially at district council level, where councillors have feared legal challenge as a result of predetermination or bias and thus been overly cautious in their discussion and determination of planning applications. However, until there is more detailed guidance it is difficult to be sure how it will work in practice and how a swing to the other extreme (a damaging free-for-all) is to be avoided.

4. WHAT THE BILL DOES NOT CONTAIN

4.1. Presumption in favour of sustainable development

There is no reference to a presumption in favour of sustainable development. KSPC understands that this is to be included as part of a "radically simplified and consolidated national planning framework" in April 2012, and it is already implicit in Building Regulations (L2). However, KSPC considers that it is a surprising and important omission and that it should be clearly stated in this Bill.

4.2. Third Party Right of Appeal

KSPC would welcome clarification of the Government’s intentions here. It is not clear whether this much-trailed idea has been abandoned or merely delayed. It is understandable that planners do not want it – potentially, it would render every development, large and small, vulnerable to appeal, which would cause the system to seize up completely. However it has widespread appeal to individuals and local councils frustrated by the sometimes apparently arbitrary and bizarre decisions made by LPAs. Taking the views of local councils and other third parties much more seriously is probably the best way forward, but it might be worth canvassing opinion amongst a sample of LPAs and local councils.

February 2011