So, it is official. The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states in black and white that as long as your neighbourhood plan is no more than 2 years old and has policies and allocations to meet your housing requirements, then your local planning authority only need demonstrate a 3-year supply of housing to fend off speculative planning applications, rather than the usual 5-year supply. Consider the carrot of undertaking site allocations as part of your neighbourhood plan firmly dangled (if it is actually possible to firmly dangle anything…). Nevertheless, it is all too easy for groups to focus simply on allocating as a way of fending off the unwanted rather than thinking about what they can secure for their communities through the allocation process.
The truth is that new development is the main show in town if you want to pay for community infrastructure – new play areas, sports pitches, community centres, even swimming pools (if you are prepared to accept enough growth in return). But that doesn’t mean that a developer offering to provide facilities in exchange for an allocation should be able to call the shots. Far from it. The fact is that communities traditionally meet the planning system when there is an application they may wish to oppose. Whether the social media campaigns, placard-wielding supporters or well-crafted speeches to planning committees work, this is 11th hour stuff. The ability to influence is significantly restricted as most of the matters at hand have been dealt with. By contrast, neighbourhood planning is part of the meat and drink of what planning is about, namely plan making. It is the opportunity to shape what happens and not only the ‘where’. Getting communities to understand this is actually harder than one would think. Old habits die hard.
The reality is that, under the NPPF regime, sites promoted for housing development have to present some pretty fundamental showstoppers to not be considered as sustainable in its eyes. This often leaves neighbourhood plan groups with a list of ‘sustainable’ sites totting up to a dwelling number far in excess of that which they need to find. For many, the fear is that they are then obliged to allocate them all and incur the wrath of their communities. But this is simply not the case and highlights the importance of being clear about the objectives of the neighbourhood plan for that community. Clear objectives lead to well-evidenced requirements.
For example, one objective of a neighbourhood plan may be to provide greater choice in the facilities that serve the needs of families. The evidence from the community, coupled with the local planning authorities’ technical evidence (in its community facilities or play audit), identifies a shortage in the provision of play facilities for older children in the south of a town. Therefore it is reasonable to require a site allocation in this area to provide an appropriate play facility as part of an allocation for housing development; and one that is well connected to the rest of the community. The site best able to do so will secure the allocation at the expense of the others.
Site promoters may be quick, as they normally are when promoting speculative sites, to offer certain different – cheaper? – ‘benefits’ but the neighbourhood plan group should remember that this is its game, and if the promoter won’t follow the rules of the game then they won’t be allowed to play. They may not like this but if groups are firm and clear and use their evidence to justify their objectives, it is amazing how quickly the promoters will fall into line.
At some stage it became easy to forget that planning for a sustainable future was determined by more than just a 5-year land supply position. But it still is and neighbourhood plan groups should be reminded of this at regular intervals.
An edited version of this blog appears on the University of Reading Neighbourhood Planning website – https://research.reading.ac.uk/neighbourhoodplanning/