Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Royal Town Planning Institute (L 92)

Introduction and Summary

1. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has over 23,000 members who work in the public, private, voluntary and education sectors. It is a charity whose purpose is to develop the art and science of town planning for the benefit of the public. The RTPI develops and shapes policy affecting the built environment, works to raise professional standards and supports members through continuous education, practice advice, training and development.

2. We run Planning Aid in England – supporting communities and individuals through a locally-based network of 1,200 RTPI members who give their time and expertise free of charge – a service at the heart of localism.

3. The RTPI supports the objectives that underlie the Localism Bill and is keen to work with the Government to make the Bill effective. In particular, the RTPI supports a National Planning Policy Framework, welcomes the strengthening of the role of local plans and is pleased that earlier thinking on third party rights of appeal has not been carried forward. The RTPI also supports proposals to increase the democratisation of processes for nationally significant infrastructure projects.

4. The RTPI very much welcomes the Bill placing planning at the heart of the localism agenda. Planning is central to enabling communities to develop their vision for the future of their area, to provide the means for areas and the nation to decide on priorities for investment and to tackle the challenges of climate change, sustainable economic growth and social inequity.

5. Within this overall position, the RTPI has three main areas of concern:

i. the National Planning Policy Framework announced in the Coalition Agreement needs to be embodied in statute;

ii. arrangements for strategic planning between the local and national levels need to be strengthened; and

iii. the proposed neighbourhood planning system is overly complex and this, combined with the lack of resources supporting the engagement of communities, may mean that neighbourhood planning will not be as visionary, widespread or effective as intended.

6. The RTPI will also be examining the effect on effective planning of other provisions in the Bill, including: pre-determination, EU fines, local referendums, the right to challenge, Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), community assets, enforcement and the right to acquire, and will be monitoring the progress of the Bill paying particular attention to these issues.

Areas of Concern

7. The RTPI will propose detailed amendments to the Bill to address its concerns and will oppose any amendments proposed by others that would weaken the role of effective democratic planning. The following part of this evidence addresses our main concerns in more detail and suggests proposals for addressing them.

National Planning Policy Framework


8. The Coalition Agreement, published on 20th May 2010 [1] , proposed "a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities."

9. The DCLG draft Structural Reform Plan [2] , which sets out the overall priorities and the actions which the department will undertake, states that new national planning policy will be in place by April 2012.

10. Despite an extensive collection of PPGs, PPSs, NPSs, circulars, etc., England is unique in the UK in lacking any clear expression of a vision for its future spatial development, whereas all the devolved administrations have some form of such a vision. Scotland has a National Planning Framework, updated in June 2009; Wales has a spatial Plan, updated in July 2008 and Northern Ireland has a Regional Development Strategy which is currently being reviewed.

The Localism Bill

11. The Localism Bill does not contain any proposals relating to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The Issues

12. There are two main issues. First, should the NPPF be referenced in the Bill and, second, what characteristics should it have? The RTPI believes that the omission of any reference to the NPPF in the Localism Bill needs to be rectified.

The NPPF: The case for inclusion in the Bill

13. The RTPI recognises that legislation already gives the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance to which bodies shall have regard. However, this general power does not give enough status and clarity to the NPPF, especially in comparison with the National Policy Statements (NPSs) for infrastructure, which are referenced in part 2 of the Planning Act 2008.

14. There are five reasons why the NPPF should be referenced in the Bill:

· It would strengthen the NPPF’s effectiveness if a range of bodies and statutory plans were required to have regard to it specifically;

· It would establish its position in relation to other statutory national policies, notably NPSs;

· It would establish its position in relation to non-statutory national plans such as the National Infrastructure Plan;

· A statutory basis could be used to commit Governments to seek the approval of Parliament for this key document;

· It is clear from Government statements that the NPPF will contain some fundamental policies including a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and the consequent definition of ‘sustainable development’. Such fundamental changes to the planning system do require a statutory basis and the ability of Parliament to approve them.

The NPPF: what should it contain?

15. The RTPI believes that the NPPF needs to have five characteristics in addition to its already stated role of bringing together and focusing the existing planning policies in PPGs and PPSs. These are:

· bringing together all existing designations that inform decisions on major planning issues, including national designations such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, international designations such as Ramsar Sites, and national and international infrastructure networks;

· enabling more informed decisions by Ministers and Parliament by expressing specific national proposals such as HS2 and the locations new nuclear power stations within a wider policy context;

· enabling more informed policy and decision making by setting out recognised geographic constraints on development, such as flood plains and areas of water stress;

· addressing those Government policies that are focused on different parts of the country, such as those on re-balancing the economy and the development of economic clusters; and

· importantly, recognising that nearly all national policy decisions (such as investment in major research centres) have different impacts in different parts of the country and spelling these impacts out.

The RTPI’s Proposals

16. The RTPI intends to propose an amendment to the Bill to establish a National Planning Policy Framework in statute, to require bodies to have regard to it in taking decisions and preparing plans, and to require that it is debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Strategic Planning


17. A number of Government announcements have heralded the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs), Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and Government Offices for the Regions.

18. These decisions will require a radically new approach to strategic planning to ensure continuity between local planning and national planning (see above). The Government has put forward a number of initiatives that recognise this, including Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), a statutory duty to co-operate and incentives such as the New Homes Bonus.

The Localism Bill

19. The Bill provides the statutory basis for the abolition of RSSs (Clause 89). It introduces a new ‘duty to co-operate’ (Clause 90) intended to encourage local authorities, in particular, to work together on strategic planning issues.

20. The Bill does not include any other provisions for planning at this strategic level except in relation to London (Part 7) and to areas with Elected Mayors (Schedule 2). It does not contain any provisions relating to LEPs and these will not, therefore, become statutory bodies at this stage.

The Issues

21. The RTPI recognises the thinking behind the dismantling of the regional tier of planning, and some of its shortcomings in practice, and does not argue for its retention or return.

22. However, regional planning was not just about imposing top-down housing targets on local communities – the RSSs also contained community-driven environmental, economic and social spatial planning policies, and some of these need to be translated into new local or joint plans. The Bill therefore needs to ensure that systems, institutions and practices are sufficient and effective in addressing the needs of the nation and of local communities in terms of: infrastructure; those situations where the solutions to a local area’s problems lie outside its area; uses or activities which meet the needs of minority groups and interests, such as places of worship or sites for gypsies and travellers; and uses that may not be popular but are necessary, such as prisons, waste disposal facilities and major hospitals.

23. The achievement of sustainable development, and of targets on renewable energy and carbon emissions, is dependent on ensuring that the location of new development optimises existing infrastructure and that decisions are made where the benefits to areas wider than a local authority are taken into account. All this requires a comprehensive and effective democratic system of strategic planning.

24. There is also the need to ensure that all areas of England have equal access to the ability to properly consider strategic issues. There is an imbalance between the powers given to the Mayor of London, including a statutory economic strategy and proposals for a Mayoral Development Corporation, and other places. (The RTPI will be looking in detail at the planning aspects of Mayoral Development Corporations.) Overall, the RTPI would wish to see elected Mayors in areas other than London also being able to take on strategic planning and implementation responsibilities, but the model of strategic planning at city-region level is one that could be applied whether or not the area has an elected mayor.

25. The RTPI does not consider that LEPs should be strategic planning bodies, as such responsibility must lie with democratically elected authorities whose remit is wider than just the promotion of economic development, with strategic plans being subject to the rigour of approval through the development plan process. There is the need, however, to ensure that the duty to co-operate extends to LEPs.

The RTPI’s Proposals

26. The RTPI will propose amendments within the structure of the Bill to strengthen this level of planning in the context of localism. These will include:

· Strengthening the duty to co-operate to extend its practice beyond consultation and information, and to make a failure to co-operate challengeable;

· Placing a duty on local authorities to consider the preparation of joint plans;

· Ensuring that all elected Mayors can have responsibility for strategic planning but that the power to determine planning applications is not removed from elected local planning authorities except in clearly defined circumstances.

Neighbourhood and Local Planning


27. Community engagement has been central to the English Planning System since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This was reinforced in 1969 with Arthur Skeffington MP’s report, Peo p le and Planning, encouraging more community engagement and setting out techniques for doing so. Subsequent legislation in 1990, 2004 and 2008 all place a statutory duty of community engagement on local authorities.

28. The provisions of the Localism Bill take this long-embedded part of planning further by allowing communities to prepare their own statutory plans. Given the above and the leading role that planning practice has played, the RTPI welcomes the philosophy underlying this part of the Bill.

29. The RTPI also welcomes the Bill retaining the concept that the development plan should be the prime consideration in determining planning applications. S.38(6)(c) of the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act already establishes that: "any determination to be made under the planning Acts ... must be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise."

The Localism Bill

30. The Bill introduces the following new system of neighbourhood planning:

· Community groups, including Parish and Town Councils may prepare statutory neighbourhood plans. Groups that are not Parish or Town Councils have to be approved for this purpose by the Local Authority which is also required to approve the boundaries of the area to be planned;

· Local authorities have a duty to support neighbourhood planning through advice and guidance (but are not compelled to provide financial support or undertake actual plan preparation);

· Local authorities set out the strategic elements of their development plan, such as housing requirements, and the neighbourhood plan must abide by those, but may exceed development requirements;.

· The neighbourhood plan will undergo an independent evaluation which will look at its conformity to national policy, to the strategic elements of the local plan and European environmental obligations.

· If the independent evaluation accepts the plan then it will go to a referendum of residents of the designated neighbourhood area. If more than 50 per cent of those voting agree, then the local planning authority must adopt it.

· The Bill also makes provision for Neighbourhood Development Orders allowing automatic full or outline permission for certain schemes. A Community Right to Build Order is a variation of a Neighbourhood Development Order which allows community led development on a particular site to go ahead without further planning permission.

The Issues

31. Overall, the RTPI considers that the system put forward, welcome as it is, is too confusing. It is not clear, for example, what the relationship between neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders is. Secondly, local authorities will have a duty to support neighbourhoods preparing plans. Local authorities, through their planning departments, and communities both need to have the adequate skills, capacity and resources to effectively engage with the new elements of the planning system, particularly given the complexity of the proposals.

32. In this context, the RTPI particularly regrets the announcement of the ending of grant funding for Planning Aid, but is working with the DCLG and others to try to continue providing a service to those communities most in need.

33. Greater clarity is required as to the source of resources for neighbourhoods to enable neighbourhood planning to take place. Will this come from charging for pre-application advice or from the community infrastructure levy (CIL)? Setting aside the question of whether this is an appropriate use of these resources, there remains the issue of how realistic it would be to expect resources for neighbourhood planning to flow from these sources in difficult economic times, especially in the less affluent parts of the country where development viability is particularly marginal.

34. The RTPI is also concerned about the undemocratic nature of neighbourhood forums. The basic requirements in the Bill are for a body composed of a minimum of just three residents, that is open to all existing or potential residents, has a constitution and is set up to further economic, social and environmental well-being in the area. This may be open to abuse by those who may bring a narrow agenda to an activity that requires a broad and inclusive approach. It is also not clear whether the duty to consult on local plans also applies to neighbourhood planning.

35. Allied to this, the Bill does not make provision for forums led by established and recognised local businesses, such as Business Improvement District bodies.

36. Finally, the RTPI believes that the opportunity has been missed to make neighbourhood plans the means through which the community expresses its priorities local investment through the community proportion of the Community Infrastructure Levy and the New Homes Bonus.

The RTPI’s Proposals

37. The RTPI will propose amendments to the Bill to:

· make it clear that a Neighbourhood Development Order and a Community Right to Build Order can only be put forward and approved through the preparation of a Neighbourhood Development Plan;

· bring greater democratic legitimacy to the bodies undertaking neighbourhood planning;

· enable established local business communities to undertake neighbourhood planning;

· place a clear duty on the approved body undertaking neighbourhood plans to consult on draft provisions at a stage when the community and others can influence them;

· enable neighbourhood plans to be the means by which the local community decides how to prioritise the spending of future sources of local investment such as the neighbourhood element of the Community Infrastructure Levy and the New Homes Bonus.

Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development


38. The May 2010 Coalition Agreement proposes "a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system."

The Localism Bill

39. The Localism Bill does not contain any provisions relating to this proposal. It is understood that this will be achieved not through legislation but through the National Planning Policy Framework.

The Issues

40. It is understood that this presumption will be applied where a local authority does not have an up-to-date adopted development plan. However, it is worth noting that there is already a duty in the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act that those undertaking local planning " ...must exercise the function with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development " and, further, there is also a presumption in favour of the local development plan in making planning decisions. Thus this additional presumption may be confusing.

41. More worryingly for the effective and proper planning of communities, there are indications that this presumption could be interpreted as allowing developers to build what they like, where they like and when they like if councils failed to plan for new development.

The RTPI’s Proposals

42. The RTPI has also been considering whether the announced ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and the definition of sustainable development should be on the face of the Bill. We consider that it is sufficient to make reference to the NPPF in the Bill (see above) as this will give the presumption some statutory weight and will allow flexibility and limit the scope for vexatious challenge if the definition is not a statutory one.

43. The RTPI is working with other bodies and with the Government to arrive at an acceptable, workable and clear definition of sustainable development.

44. The RTPI will, however, vigorously resist any official interpretation of this presumption that either disregards the concept of sustainability or seeks to use it as a method of circumventing the democratic role of local government in deciding on development proposals that are important to the future of communities.

February 2011

[1] HM Government (2010) The Coalition: our programme for government http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/409088/pfg_coalition.pdf

[2] http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/corporate/pdf/16359212.pdf