Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Rural Coalition (L 36)

Introduction

The Rural Coalition originally formed in September 2009 in recognition of and to promote the growing consensus around the future of rural communities and rural (sustainable) development. This had been reflected and articulated in the Taylor Review of Sustainable Rural Communities (‘Living Working Countryside’, July 2008).

The Rural coalition comprises the following organisations:-

Action with Communities in Rural England

Action for Market Towns   

Arthur Rank Centre

Campaign to Protect Rural England

Country Land and Business Association    

Local Government Association

National Association of Local Councils   

National Housing Federation    

National Farmers Union   

Plunkett Foundation  

Rural Services Network /SPARSE 

Royal Town Planning Institute

Town and Country Planning Association

The Rural Coalition has developed proposals for local empowerment and rural sustainable development, as set out in ‘The Rural Challenge’, August 2010. Some 38 recommendations cover the following policy areas:

· community led affordable housing in villages

· importance of innovative approaches to economic development

· how to ensure that the growth of rural market towns is sustainable, better addressing the concerns of residents, by planning new neighbourhoods with sense of place, services, employment, quality community spaces and mixed housing

· innovative service delivery in context of present financial realities

· empowerment of communities (essentially localism and decentralisation, or the ‘Big Society’)

The Rural Coalition seeks to advise Government locally and nationally (and others) on the practical implementation of localism, decentralisation, the Big Society and sustainable development in a rural context.

We very much hope that this briefing will help make the Localism Bill work for local communities and the nation.

Overview of the Localism Bill

The Rural Coalition:

- Agrees with the commitment to localism

-  Agrees that localism doesn't stop at the county and district council - it means giving real power to more local communities (small towns and villages, in a rural context)

- Believes the Government is right to see lots of opportunities for community action to lead to better outcomes in development and service delivery

However, whilst strongly welcoming the principles behind the Bill, it has in our view become overly complex, and some elements may not work as intended.  With at least 142 separate powers in the Bill to regulate, guide or control, instead of giving councils and communities the power to act, it creates a system that will be extremely hard for local communities to navigate. In addition, it arguably too often empowers central government to tell local communities how to do it, directly and through powers to issue regulations and guidance. The Government is right to wish to promote localism and decentralisation – we encourage it to do so full heartedly, and to keep it simple enough to be practical.

Neighbourhood and Community Led Planning

1. Non-parished areas:

About 35% of the population live in areas with a parish or town council. In areas without parishes (some 65% of the population), 'Neighbourhood Forums' will be the Neighbourhood Planning body (Schedule 9 Clause 61F 5 a-d). The Localism Bill states that a 'Neighbourhood Forum’ must have a minimum of three people and must pass a series of tests before becoming a qualifying body. However, definitions of neighbourhood forums need (given they have statutory powers) to be more rigorous if they are a) designed to be genuinely representative, b) consider social, environmental and economic issues in the neighbourhood rather than just tackle single issues and c) define the boundaries of their neighbourhood.  We are also concerned that in non-parished areas there are not enough safeguards that the proposed unelected neighbourhood forums will operate inclusively, transparently and with safeguards on probity. There need to be stronger mechanisms for local people to blow the whistle on forums which are not working appropriately and for councils to respond to that.

2. The difference between Community-Led Planning (non-statutory) and Neighbourhood Plans (statutory)

Schedules 9 and 10 of Volume 2 of the Localism Bill set out the details of the Neighbourhood Development Plan and Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO). It is important to remember the difference between the well established community-led planning process which encourages participation in mapping out the needs and future of the community as a whole, and the new statutory planning role of Neighbourhood Plans. Both are required to produce the aspirations of the Bill. 

· The role of Community-Led Planning and other existing participatory techniques will be well-placed to contribute to Neighbourhood Plans but the application of Community-Led Planning goes beyond this in creating community-led solutions and contributing to wider delivery of the Bill by informing the Community Right to Buy, Place-based Budgeting and other proposed mechanisms.

· Neighbourhood Plans are welcomed as an opportunity for Community-Led Planning to formally link to statutory spatial planning. This will be most effective if a balance can be achieved between achieving a simple procedure and widening their focus beyond land use alone to genuine spatial planning. 

· The Complexity and cost of the proposed process for Neighbourhood Plans raises real concern – as does the relationship between plans and local development orders.  There should be much more emphasis on giving local people and councils powers to act in the community’s best interests. We want to see Neighbourhood Plans, Local Plans and cross-departmental local authority strategies have consideration for wider community vision documents (e.g. from Community Local Planning),    rather than just from the currently more narrowly planning focused perspective.

3. Achieving sustainable development (social, economic and environmental).

As presently drafted there is no duty to consider sustainable development until the Inspector and the Local Authority review a proposed Neighbourhood Plan – it would be better to include this from the start.

· Schedule 9 of the Localism Bill, which sets out many of the requirements of Neighbourhood Planning, will be introduced by amending the 1990 Planning Act (the principle Act). Therefore the clauses on Neighbourhood Planning in the Localism Bill do not fall under the general requirements of the 2004 and 2008 Planning Acts in relation to the process of plan making (Part 2 of the 2004 Act as amended does not apply to Neighbourhood Planning. NDOs and NDPs become part of Local Development Framework (LDF) by amendments to part 3 of the 2004 Act)

· The result is that none of the duties placed upon Local Authorities in relation to LDF preparation on sustainable development, climate change and design would apply to the process of Neighbourhood Planning. It is the intention that the local authority has the opportunity to test the Neighbourhood Plan before adoption and could seek to amend it. This retrospective approach could make it more challenging to ensure that any plan is fit for purpose in relation to climate change because low carbon principles would, for example, have to be retrofitted at the end of the process. It also could create considerable antagonism between Local Authorities and neighbourhoods.

The Government’s argument is in two parts:

· First that applying the duties would complicate the Neighbourhood Planning process

· Second, that the local authority would be able to advise on the importance of these issue in the preparation process.

This raises some important considerations. The duties in relation to LDFs are not severe, but designed to direct the decision-maker’s attention to embedding the core principles of planning from the outset in order to shape places which deliver high quality and inclusive places. With Neighbourhood Plans, as drafted, the local authority will have to apply these duties retrospectively, but before final adoption making the process less certain, and potentially more antagonistic.

The advice of a local planning authority on the importance of these issues does not equate to a legal duty on the primary decision making body (in this case the Parish Council or neighbourhood forum) making the plan. True, Neighbourhood Plans will have to have regard to the NPPF, which will contain the definition of sustainable development and other national priorities. However the NPPF cannot place any powerful legal duties on the decision-maker because its status is only that of policy guidance. Decisions must have regard to such guidance but this is not a legal duty to apply it. Indeed, the inclusion of the climate duty in the 2008 Act regarding LDFs was a conscious attempt to remedy the failure of guidance to drive sufficient change in planning practice.

The elevation of sustainable development, climate and design to legal duties was a signal from parliament as to their primary importance in the planning process. If that remains the Government’s view, this is the only way to ensure that happens effectively, and that it is clear from the start of the process. Amending the Bill to ensure the duties do apply to Neighbourhood Plans would be straightforward and we believe that should be done.

4. Precedence between local plan and Neighbourhood Plan

· The Localism Bill states (Schedule 10 8 (2)) that the Neighbourhood Plan will have to be in ‘general conformity’ with the local development plan which leaves open the prospect of much local and legal argument. Some issues such as housing numbers will be enshrined in the core strategy and Neighbourhood Development Plans will not be able to overturn them. In one sense this represents a shift in the tension inherent in planning from between regional and local to between local and neighbourhood.

· What constitutes conformity with ‘strategic elements’ of the local plan?  Is the intention that the Neighbourhood Plan should have more weight if it proposes more development than the local plan but has no weight if it attempts to block development? It is intended that Government guidance will define what is ‘strategic’ in local plans, with Neighbourhood Plans having to be in conformity with these ‘strategic’ elements of the local plan. We accept there clearly are national strategic priorities, which should be set out in NPPF and in core strategy in relation to housing and climate change especially. However, there will also be strategic priorities at Local Authority level. As written, the Bill leaves it entirely to national Government to determine what are the ‘strategic elements’ of the local plan. It is not clear how local strategic priorities not recognised as strategic by national government will be balanced with the ability in these proposals for neighbourhoods to adopt a contradictory view.

5. Local Plans and rolling process

Local Planning Authorities (LPA) are at different stages of development of their local plans. Will local plan policies be able to be revised at any time and if so, what is the process; e.g. where a Neighbourhood Plan might be developed that conflicts with existing plan policies but which the LPA may be willing to change to encompass the neighbourhood’s proposals. This is an instance where over-regulation is unhelpful. The Bill’s proposal that an adopted Neighbourhood Plan should form part of a revised local plan is welcomed, but currently as drafted the Bill allows this only if a Neighbourhood Plan proposal that is acceptable to all parties is not disbarred by the ‘strategic elements’ test. If the LPA is happy to change its approach in order to adopt a Neighbourhood Plan, it should surely be able to do so, in particular where the Neighbourhood Plan offers development which would otherwise been prohibited by constraints on development via generic local plan policies.

6. Referendums

Referendums can be divisive and are expensive.  We are promoting the value of the concept of communities making decisions via collaborative democracy (consistent with the commitments made in "Open Source Planning") which centres on building consensus within the community and partnership working with the LPA.  If government is willing to put equal effort into supporting this through investment in support for Neighbourhood Plans and is willing to promote the referendum idea as simply the last part of the process, then we will get closer to something that will work. That said, if the council is happy with a neighbourhood proposal, and there is no sign of any significant local opposition, what is the point of a costly and perhaps divisive referendum? Referenda and RTB should be 'last resort' mechanisms to break deadlocks between communities and LAs. If there is an approved NP there should not be any need for these exceptional mechanisms.

7. National Planning Policy Framework

In the absence of the National Planning Policy Framework, it is difficult to properly assess how many of the proposals in the Bill will work. 

The Government is currently seeking views on a new National Planning Policy Framework with a consultation running until the 28th February 201 [1] . The final version is not expected until April 2012. It will contain the key definition of sustainable development as well an indication of balance between local and national considerations. Our understanding is that document will be non statutory guidance and non prescriptive.

The NPPF will contain a new policy of a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

The NPPF will therefore require detailed attention to the sustainable development definition and its robustness, particularly in relation to meeting the needs of rural communities (and as described in detail by the Rural Coalition in The Rural Challenge) The Rural Coalition would recommend that the definition of sustainable development is based on that set out in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy (2005), covering economic, social and environmental sustainability together. [2] We believe it would aid the examination of the Bill for the Government to confirm (or incorporate into the Bill) this definition now.

The Bill leaves in place the duty to promote sustainable development under the 2004 Act (Section 39), but this duty does not appear, for reasons explained above (in section 3) to apply to aspects of Neighbourhood Planning. We repeat that we believe there remains a very strong case for strengthening the duty on sustainable development and ensuring it applies not only to plan making (the current position) but to all planning decision making.

8. NPPF and Rural Economic development

It is important that the NPPF is positive re the importance of all kinds of appropriate economic rural development, not just land based. Creating and maintaining strong rural economies offers those living in rural areas better opportunities for work in their local community. More and better-quality local employment opportunities help to reduce the out-migration of younger people and retain skilled graduates. Being able to work closer to (or in) the home also helps to deliver national sustainable development objectives by harnessing the entrepreneurial and exporting potential of businesses in rural areas. In particular supporting sites for business use, farm building re-use, home based work, and extensions to the home for business use (e.g. an office suitable to take on a first member of staff) reduces the need to commute longer distances to work. In rural areas 17% of employment is home based compared to 9% in urban areas – rising to over 30% in the most rural areas. Encouraging small scale growth of home based businesses is key to economic growth in rural areas.

9. Generating volunteering and social action

Neighbourhood Plans in themselves don’t generate volunteering and social action, but the Community Local Plan process does, and the Government’s proposals rely in large measure on this happening. If the Government is serious about localism and the Big Society, it needs to be serious about capacity building, especially given the impact of reductions in council budgets on councils’ ability to support this kind of activity, generally, and the need for specific expertise like planning officers to support neighbourhood/village planning. The proposed CLG investment in ‘Supporting Communities and Neighbourhood Planning’ is therefore very welcome, but is unlikely to provide the level of support thousands of local communities drawing up local plans will need.

10. Right to Build

We agree that the Right to Build shouldn’t just be about housing – it’s about meeting a range of infrastructure needs that can only be determined by research & debate inside the community for which Community Led Planning is ideally suited.  The Government have sought to address this by giving the option for a Neighbourhood Development Order (which can cover any spatial development issue) as well as CRtB Orders which are focused on a site-specific community-led developments This has introduced greater complexity however; if Right to Build is to continue to exist alongside Neighbourhood Development Orders, it is important that these don’t become rival mechanisms for disputing the outcome of one another by triggering rival referendums for example.

11. Local needs in perpetuity

It is unclear how the Right to Build and the related Neighbourhood Plan proposals relate to the existing ability with Exception Sites in small rural communities to use S106 obligations to require homes built to be affordable in perpetuity and prioritised to meet local needs (usually under a ‘parish cascade ‘ system). It is important that similar requirements can be placed by the community on homes delivered through Right to Build or Neighbourhood Plans.

12. Right to Buy and Right to Challenge

Many councils are already involved in moves to support local people, social enterprises and community organisations to take over the running of public services and assets.

· To extend it further, there is a need to allow maximum flexibility to communities to adapt services to local needs and capacity, not simply take over existing services. In this regard there needs to be a process whereby primary legislation, regulation or statutory guidance which has the effect of setting minimum service standards can be varied to meet local needs.

· The Bill also needs to allow sufficient time for communities to develop viable business plans for taking on assets. Recognition needs to be given to the additional challenges of taking on private assets, particularly when there is an unco-operative seller.

· Share the savings. Even using volunteers there are real costs and need for support if communities are to take over services or assets – where services are withdrawn by central or local Government and other agencies, some of the savings should be shared with the community to allow local community led ‘Big Society’ solutions to take their place.

13. Village Green Applications

Genuine protection of village greens is important, especially given that proposals for a new local landscape designation are absent from the Bill, and therefore likely to lack statutory footing. However, there is evidence that some vexatious use is being made of the Town and Village Green registration process to slow down or block affordable housing developments, despite local support. Such actions bring the genuine need for Town and Village Green protection into disrepute, whilst also creating a real risk to rural housing delivery, as the village green mechanism can be used to block or disrupt the progress of the proposal even where there is local support and planning permission has been granted. We would wish to test the government`s attitude to accepting reform of the system for designating local green space, in the context of the findings of the CCRI’s 2009 research into Town and Village Green registrations [3] [1] . Protection of genuine community open space is important and we believe it is necessary, but it should be possible to quickly establish whether claims have a realistic basis, so as to avoid their misuse and give greater certainty in genuine cases.

14. Affordable Rent Scheme for development of homes at 80% local market rent.

A new emphasis on intermediate housing for smaller rural communities was a central theme of the Taylor Review, and the Rural Coalition report last summer also made the point that increased use of intermediate affordable housing could address the need in rural communities for housing affordable for those on local wages. However, there are two concerns:

· Under the Government’s scheme is it for the kind of people we had in mind in our recommendation on intermediate renting (low paid working people), or workless/most excluded? If the latter, it would be problematic given their reliance on benefits, and lack of rural services. We believe the primary issue in many small rural communities is the needs of low waged locally employed people in the village, and nominations policies should reflect this. It makes no sense to nominate people in high needs who may struggle to afford intermediate rents, need services that the village may not easily offer, and lack a local connection.

· We note with concern that existing social housing tenants will lose their security of tenure if the move to a new social rented property. Given the considerable pressure on family sized properties, particularly in rural areas, we would not want to put a further difficulty in place that prevents older couples moving into smaller accommodation and so release larger properties for family use.

15. Landowners and land for affordable housing

It is very important to encourage low cost land for community housing. The RICS survey for the Taylor Review showed that the key issue for many landowners considering making land available for community led schemes is that the housing provided will be affordable in perpetuity (so that they are assured someone else will not make the profit later, and it remains a community asset). Additionally, extending them some nomination rights (a family member meeting the local needs criteria, or employees), or a low ground rent to provide a degree of long term income, can further unlock land supply. We urge the Government to publish/update the report on landowner incentivisation which has been sitting on a shelf since the election ("Guidance for Local Authorities on Incentivising Landowners to Bring Forward Land for Affordable Housing on Rural Exception Sites").

16. Growth of market towns – a new approach

We believe the Government should ensure the tools are in place for LPAs to work with communities and developers to implement a truly plan-led approach to strategic development. The principles underpinning such sustainable development (but not the process) are well described in the eco-town pps (and the Taylor Review); whilst under the NPPF a specific Eco-Towns PPS will no longer be appropriate, the description of what makes a sustainable new community or neighbourhood should be evolved into best practice guidance for sustainable community developments. Whole community sustainable extensions/new neighbourhoods including homes, employment, services and community space promote more sustainable (in every sense) development. They can also address many of the legitimate anxieties about the piecemeal estate by estate developments that lead many communities to resist any new development.

January 2011


[1] CLG website. National Planning Policy Framework. http://www.communities.gov.uk/planningandbuilding/planningsystem/planningpolicy/planningpolicyframework/

[2] Securing the Future; Delivering the UK sustainable deve lopment strategy (Defra, 2005) http://www.defra.gov.uk/sustainable/government/publications/uk-strategy/documents/SecFut_complete.pdf

[3] Countryside and Community Research Institute and Asken Ltd. (2009) Study of determined town and village green applications , http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=NR0139_8742_FRP.PDF (availability 24.01.2011)


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