Written evidence submitted by Oxfordshire Neighbourhood Plans Alliance [FPS 052]
Oxfordshire Neighbourhood Plans Alliance represents many of the 83 neighbourhood development plans (NDPs) already in force and in progress across the County. ONPA has serious concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system, and in particular the way in which they would impact on NDPs. Our principal concerns are:
Neighbourhood plan groups have worked exhaustively but necessarily through the process of engaging their local communities in developing planning policies. What emerges through a process of debate and education, and is tested at referendum, is focussed, locally-specific, thoughtful and a powerful representation of local democracy.
Unfortunately, though, the White Paper sends all sorts of mixed messages to the NP community, because it threatens to reduce the current role of parishes and community forums. Where their Local Plan supports “development” or “renewal” they will lose the right to check that what is going to be built meets their local community needs at this more granular level. This a very high price to pay for a questionable speeding-up of the process.
The scale and quality of neighbourhood development plans in England has been hailed as the flagship of a mature democratic planning system, of which the Government should be proud. The White Paper proposals will, however, require all 900-odd “made” NDPs to be rewritten to exclude many of their most valued policies. This is because they mostly relate to development management – an activity which will largely cease as a result of planning permission not being required for many developments. It is very likely that a significant number of NDP groups will choose not to go through the process again, when they consider that the results will only frustrate the wishes of local people. Those that do take on the burden of rewriting their plans will face widespread disillusionment across their community, when it becomes apparent that all the hard work is for so little influence. Neighbourhood plans will therefore fade into history.
The White Paper wants to make it ‘easier to develop NDPs’, wishes ‘to encourage their continued use and indeed to help spread their use further, particularly in towns and cities’; but also: ‘we think NDPs should be retained in the reformed planning system, but we will want to consider whether their content should become more focused to reflect our proposals for Local Plans’. We assume that this means that NPPF paragraphs 28-30, and the Basic Conditions in NDP regulations will be rewritten. If the powers of influence of NDPs over how development is managed are removed, why would local people get involved?
Local Plans are to be re-cast by the local planning authorities – in Oxfordshire currently the four Districts and the City Council – by identifying all land as in one of three categories – growth areas, renewal areas, and protected areas. This is a huge oversimplification of the concept of zoning, and will lead to some very poor outcomes. Good outcomes that reflect local community wishes have to be granular in nature, worked through in detail and not generalised into broad sweeping categories. If such detail were to be possible within the new proposals for Local Plans, it would go some way to mitigating the loss of the opportunity for local communities to scrutinise applications. However, to achieve that would take much more time and effort than the Government wishes to see, in its hurry to shorten timescales.
In Germany, where a zoning system has existed for some time, every urban block is “carefully master-planned in advance, specifying the exact mix of uses, massing and open space, providing certainty to developers about what is allowed.” (Guardian 6th August 2020). Such an approach would be even more demanding in a rural context, which is the case for many communities in Oxfordshire.
A salutary example: a broad zoning of land in Bicester, of mixed “housing and employment”
(but without any detail to guide developers) was set out somewhat carelessly in the Local Plan: it resulted in a win on appeal for the construction of huge warehouses almost adjacent to large areas of new housing, something which everyone except the developer now regrets. Under the Government’s proposals such errors could easily happen again without recourse to either permission or appeal.
The proposed ‘Growth’ category is so broad, it removes all nuance and ignores the individual nature of different places which might fall into that category by, for example, being unfortunate enough to be near a university or ‘urban extension site’.
In ‘Renewal’ areas ‘gentle densification and infill of residential areas’ is proposed, along with a statutory presumption in favour of development. Does this mean that villages with non-designated green spaces – so important in the context of understanding the story of our local places, welcoming walkers, providing quiet places – would ultimately disappear? Would an NDP have any say in whether that development took place?
‘Protected’ areas include conservation areas, AONBs, green belt, local wildlife sites, flood risk areas and ‘important areas of green space’. How would green spaces be designated as important without detailed involvement of the local community, for which there will be no time in the zoning process?
3. Who is responsible for housing shortfall?
The tenor of both Planning for the Future and Changes to the current planning system - Consultation on changes to planning policy and regulations is that inflexible LPAs are largely to blame for blocking the system and slowing applications. Nine out of 10 planning applications are currently approved, but there are up to a million homes in England for which planning permission has been given, but which have not been built. Development led by plans set by local authorities – in consultation with their residents, through NDPs – is democratic, accountable and fair.
There are going to be changes. To encourage developers to meet new needs in the local area and build the properties for which they already have permissions, NDPs are a good and established means of helping direct this process.
Simplifying the process of making a local plan and using more technology to democratise the process is a good thing – for example, there seems to be very little engagement in local planning from younger people at present. However, the White Paper also refers in this section to ‘profoundly re-invent[ing] engagement with local communities’, which fails to recognise what NDPs are achieving all over England.
The White Paper commitment to encourage local involvement at the local plan stage is welcome, but there should also be improved opportunities for accountability through ongoing community involvement, rather than a single moment of democracy at the start of the process.
The White Paper suggests LPAs being limited in their general development management policies to specific matters, ‘where exceptional circumstances necessitate a locally-defined approach’. The essence of England is its distinctive localities, every one of which needs to be treated sensitively to avoid becoming a zone in a homogenous whole. Many NDPs include detailed design guidance and codes to shape development. It appears that these will have to be transferred to the new Local Plans, thereby removing local specificity, one of the key attributes of NDPs.
The White Paper should be judged on whether it can deliver sustainable and thriving communities, rather than a minimum number of houses. There are some good ideas about connectivity, beauty in design and encouraging biodiversity, but all these should – and could – be delivered locally, where people who know their areas can respond flexibly and sympathetically. NDPs are an established, well-designed, democratic and accountable method of doing this.
Studies consistently show that areas with neighbourhood plans in place are allocating more housing than those without, and that this housing is what local people want. A perceived reduction in the effectiveness of NDPs may well have an adverse impact on this currently successful outcome.
10. Climate Change and sustainability
NPs are perfectly placed to channel the aspirations of local communities on climate change concerns, sustainable development, water stress and biodiversity. It is these communities that experience the drainage problems, the loss of wildlife, and the poor insulation of old homes. They need to be able to include policies in their adopted neighbourhood plans that will help bring about the essential changes. What better way to ensure that people buy into the essential and urgent changes needed to our environment, than to build on grass roots concerns. We know that this works, and that top-down policies do not always succeed. So we must have neighbourhood plans that are permitted to include policies on these wider issues, not – as might happen under the White Paper reforms – a narrowing of their scope.
11. Affordable homes
The White Paper says “We will ensure that affordable housing provision supported through developer contributions is kept at least at current levels….”. It does not inspire confidence in that statement that the recent adjustments to planning regulations raised the threshold for the number of houses to require affordability, and so has already reduced affordable housing provision. This is one of the most important issues that we face – not the total number of houses built, but the proportion of housing stock that can be afforded by communities on reduced incomes. We need to know that Government is serious about this problem in actions as well as words.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to guide developers to build to higher standards and to avoid dull standardisation. On the whole these have not worked, and that is mainly because of the difficulty of enforcing the standards. Local planning authorities can try to do so, and many do try, but with very mixed results. At neighbourhood plan level, there are examples of real success. In my own parish, a housing developer was very keen to hear local opinion on the appearance of their scheme. As a result, they significantly altered the streetscape and materials, revising their planning application to reflect local concerns, and in the process removing the need for hard-pressed local planning authority officers to have to second guess what might improve the scheme. Everybody wins. But under the White Paper proposals such local engagement with “beauty” might not be possible, and the results of that could be unfortunate.
Please do not consign neighbourhood plans to just this role of involvement with the appearance of development proposals. Local people have far more to offer the planning system, which will reduce the burden on local planning authorities. We want to introduce the concept of “co-production” of plans, requiring NPs and LPAs to work alongside each other, especially if the zoning of land is introduced. We believe that this will encourage the growth of local engagement, as people on the ground realise that they can be effective and influential.
Neighbourhood planning has been transformative: in the last nine years more than 1,000 communities in England have made neighbourhood plans, with a further 2000 currently developing them. Reducing the scope and power of NDPs risks huge disillusionment in local communities, and runs counter to the Government’s stated ambition to support greater community decision making.