What future for Neighbourhood Planning in London? The experience of the St Quintin and Woodlands neighbourhood forum

 

 

The St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan passed its referendum on February 25th with 92% support on a 23% turnout, and will very shortly be 'made' by Kensington and Chelsea Council.

 

Only a handful of neighbourhood plans in London have yet made it to the finishing line.  This compares with over 160 plans across England which have been successful at referendum, a few of which await formal adoption.  

 

No one can fully explain why experience in London since 2011 has proved different from the rest of the country, although there are some obvious pointers:

  • many neighbourhood plans have been prepared by Town and Parish Councils, bodies which have the resources (and sometimes the staff) to undertake the workload involved.  In non-parished London, neighbourhood forums have had to form themselves and to rely largely on volunteer input.

  • planning in London is inherently complicated, with a London Plan, borough-level Local Plans, and enormously high land values.  The latter bring a range of powerful market forces into play involving landowners, major private estates, and aggressive developers.

There is also a widely held view that planning departments in many London boroughs (with some honourable exceptions) still find it hard to accept the idea that 'real plans' with statutory weight can be put together by a group of people who are not professional planners.   

 

Local councillors in such boroughs may not have been briefed on how neighbourhood planning works.  Or they may have been assured by their officers that their Council's existing consultation arrangements on Local Plans are already an effective form of resident engagement and that nothing more is needed.  Hence there may be little political support to an emerging neighbourhood forum.

 

Our experience of preparing a neighbourhood plan for part of North Kensington has ultimately proved rewarding.  But there were times along the way when it seemed as though use of this new layer of the English planning system could prove to be wasted effort.  

 

We think that the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan is the first in London to include specific site allocations for future housing development.  It also uses the potential offered by the NPPF to designate Local Green Spaces.  As a neighbourhood forum, we have tried to make a reality of the Government's aspiration (enshrined in NPPF paragraph 184) that Neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community.

 

Below we set out our half dozen suggestions or 'top tips' for London neighbourhood planners, learned during a three year process of bringing a neighbourhood plan to fruition (and with a legal challenge still to be surmounted).

 

1.  Identify what you want to see changed in the planning framework for your neighbourhood

 

All the national guidance documents will suggest that you need to be clear what outcomes are sought, before embarking on a neighbourhood plan.  Are these outcomes which can be met through the planning system, or could they be better tackled through other forms of community activism? 

 

We started in 2013 with only a few ambitions.  Our local shopping parades had too many vacant shop units.  One street in our neighbourhood (part of an Employment Zone) was lifeless, with a row of half vacant office buildings.  Certain conservation policies were seen by local residents as over-restrictive and unfair, allowing loftrooms and rear dormers in some streets while not in others.   A neighbourhood plan seemed to offer a plausible route to bring about some changes in the local planning regime. 

 

Once started, the process of plan preparation created some unanticipated opportunities to update and amend planning policies for our small patch of London.  Most interventions in the planning process, especially in London, have consequences.   New issues surface.   A neighbourhood forum can find itself needing to respond to a changing context, and becoming more ambitious as a plan develops.

 

2.  Find some issues which interest your local residents and businesses

 

We embarked on our neighbourhood plan in the usual way, with a questionnaire to all 1,700 households in the neighbourhood asking people what they liked about the area, did not like, and wanted to see changed.  The response rate was not huge (5% of households returning an 8 page questionnaire).  But compared with response levels to local authority consultations on Draft Local Plans or SPDs, this is a respectable figure.  

 

The existing residents association which set up the forum already had 280 members. This has since grown to 400 as the Plan has progressed.   Communication and consultation via a website and email list is no longer an expensive challenge for any local organisation.  A £7,000 standard grant from Locality proved enough to pay for leaflets and flyers, hire the local church hall for meetings, and to fund limited (but very valuable) external input in the form of a NPIERS health-check of our Draft Plan.

 

Local interest in our neighbourhood plan built rapidly when development proposals surfaced, in response to what we were proposing.  There is nothing like a contested planning application to get Londoners out of their homes and along to a public meeting.

 

3.  Think about how the lives of Londoners are changing, and what this means for your neighbourhood

 

A basic constraint of any neighbourhood plan is that its policies must address the development and use of land and buildings.  This is what the legislation requires.  Neighbourhood plans can include other projects or actions but the formal policies in the Plan have to be tied back to land use matters.

 

Most examiners of neighbourhood plans will now accept the inclusion of other proposals, on matters such as transport and traffic.  But where such proposals are not site-specific, these will need to be differentiated from the proposed policies in the Plan.  Differentiation need not be difficult (we simply used different coloured text to distinguish the Plan's policies from its suggested 'actions', to be pursued by the local authority or transport or health bodies).

 

This limitation on scope does not mean that neighbourhood plans cannot be innovative and creative.  They can push at the boundaries of what can be influenced and controlled through spatial planning policies.  Often it is local residents, rather than local authority planners, who are the first to pick up on trends which are changing the nature of their area, and where new planning policies or controls can help.  

 

In some parts of central London, the trend might be too many new build properties purchased as 'buy to leave' and left largely unoccupied, contributing little to meeting housing need and hollowing out residential areas.  Or a trend towards de-conversions and amalgamations, reducing available housing units.  Or it might be an over concentration of new towers of student housing, distorting the demographics of an area and overloading the local public transport system.   

 

Planners may say that that planning policies can do little or nothing to influence who lives in buildings once they are built.  But across England it is proving to be neighbourhood plans that are coming up with innovative policies that can make a difference.  

 

Neighbourhood plan policies can be very precisely tailored and bespoke, covering no more than an individual street or site.  The Exeter St James NP (an early example) addressed the issue of too much student housing in one part of the town.  The examiner of the St Ives NP has recently endorsed a policy requiring new build residential properties to be occupied for most of the year as permanent residences, rather than used as second homes or holiday lets. 

 

Our own experience in North Kensington led us to question longstanding Local Plan policies restricting permissible uses in sections of one street (part of an Employment Zone created in the 1990s).  Borough-wide 'enterprise' policies meant that nothing other than B1 office use was allowed.  Market demand for B1 space at this location is low and outdated 1980s office buildings had a history of emptying out at each minor downturn in the London  office market. 

 

As a forum of local residents and businesses, we wanted to see the street filled with a wider range of uses, including retail and D class (crèches, gyms, educational uses).  And we had no problem with the idea of mixed use, with new residential units being included as part of any redevelopment of a row of 1980s warehouses and light industrial units.  But the Council's planners were unmoved, arguing that the rigid 'zoning' policies in their 2010 Local Plan must not be breached.

 

We collected our evidence on rents and vacancy levels, and set this out in a detailed Basic Conditions Statement accompanying the draft neighbourhood plan.  We hoped that an independent examiner would support our reasoning.  Having listened to argument put by ourselves and by Council officers, the examiner supported our carefully targeted policy on mixed use (with no loss of employment floorspace).  This, he concluded, did not undermine the strategic intent of Local Plan policy and was in 'general conformity'.

A small victory, for a single London street.  But an example of how neighbourhood plans can bring responsiveness to a clunky English planning system.   The world of work has been changing very fast for young Londoners.  Traditional boundaries between where and how people 'reside', 'work', and might 'sell' the product of their labours can be unhelpful.  

Planning policies that result in rigid separation of residential, employment and retail spaces make little sense to a start-up 'creative entrepreneur' offering their output or products online.   Nor do such policies make for lively cities.  Drawing 'zones' on a map is an increasingly inappropriate way to plan the urban environment of a 21st century global city.

 

4.  Understand from the start that neighbourhood planning operates within a statutory and legal framework

 

The neighbourhood planning part of the 2011 Localism Act was in some respects a brave and unlikely piece of legislation.  The planning powers devolved to parish councils and neighbourhood forums are for real, and can have a big impact on private property interests and peoples lives.  Ministers and Whitehall are not notorious for granting genuine 'power to the people'.   It is unsurprising that several checks and constraints are built into the system.  A set of basic conditions has to be met for a neighbourhood plan to proceed to referendum.  Independent examiners have to check and endorse or modify draft NP policies before they are voted on.

 

Looking back, many of the difficult issues that our neighbourhood forum has had to grapple with have been legal questions.  These started when planning officers at the local authority (RB Kensington and Chelsea) took a different view from us on the scope for a neighbourhood plan to change or vary their Local Plan policies.  Many months of negotiations followed, and we still entered the examination hearing to sit on opposite sides of the table from the Council's planning officers, needing to make our case on general conformity in front of the independent examiner.

 

The legal questions do not end with a completed plan.  Where a neighbourhood plan proposes site allocations, there are going to be winners and losers.   The number of legal challenges to neighbourhood plans outside London now runs well into double figures.  Nearly all have been initiated by housing developers, aggrieved that their particular landholdings or development proposals have not come out well from the plan process.

As a result, many of the questions that were uncertain back in 2012 have since been tested in the Courts.   These include the precise meaning of general conformity along with many a legal judgement on whether a Sustainability Appraisal or SEA is required to support a particular Draft Plan. 

 

Sad though it may be, a London neighbourhood forum will need to keep track of this series of legal decisions, as case law develops.   Land and property values in London are so extreme that it is worth the while of a landowner or developer to challenge a neighbourhood plan if they do not like its outcome.  While it will normally be for the local authority to defend its decision-making (on how it has responded to an examiner's recommendations, or when 'making' a NP at the final stage) the neighbourhood forum will be an interested party in legal proceedings. 

 

In our own case, the landowner and prospective developer of a piece of backland designated in our neighbourhood plan as Local Green Space is pursuing judicial review proceedings, challenging the  decision of Kensington and Chelsea Council to advance the Draft Plan to referendum.  The Council is defending the case robustly, and we have our own QC involved (acting for modest fees on a 'public access' basis).  

 

This is the first legal challenge to a NP seen in London and will not be the last. Such cases are proving a heavy financial burden for parish councils and Local Planning Authorities to bear.  In one recent case Aylesbury Vale District Council has decided in advance of a court hearing to concede to a housing developer and to quash the housing policies in the completed Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan that it 'made' last year, much to the disappointment of the local residents who had put the plan together.

 

5. Do not assume that planning officers are the fount of all knowledge and wisdom

 

As any map of neighbourhood forums across London will tell you, use of this part of the planning system varies widely between boroughs.  Some local councils have been proactive and supportive, other distinctly discouraging.  Some have one or more dedicated staff working on neighbourhood planning.  In others the function will be part of someone's job, and not prioritised.

 

Levels of knowledge of how the system works can also be patchy.  You may find that within weeks you know and understand more about neighbourhood planning than the council officer you are dealing with.  Guidance documents such as the Locality 'Roadmap' provide the basics.  CLG Planning Practice Guidance gives more definitive advice on most of the issues you are likely to come up against.  

 

Planners and developers tend to share a vocabulary and set of jargon that suggests rational objectivity and scientific method.  All professions like to maintain an air of mystique, and neighbourhood forums need to learn to distinguish valid reasoning from more dubious or self-serving justifications as to why planning policies and proposals 'have to be this way'.  This is where the independent examination of draft neighbourhood plans can help.

 

6. Think and plan ahead for the examination stage

 

As planning officers (and aggrieved developers) will sometimes grumble, the legal context for examination of a neighbourhood plan is lighter touch than for a Local Plan.  A neighbourhood plan is required to have regard to the NPPF but this test has a lower threshold than that for soundness, as applied to a Local Plan.

 

Reading examination reports of other plans which have parallels with your own can prove very helpful.  It can also be depressing .  You note where a draft policy, clearly beloved of its promoters and well supported in local consultation, bites the dust as falling foul of one or more of the 'basic conditions' that the examiner is testing for.  But better to understand the reasoning before your own plan is submitted to the local authority, and some of your forum's policies meet a similar fate.

 

The Neighbourhood Planning Independent Examiner Referral Service (NPIERS) is administered by the RICS and is now well established.   It will supply details of suitably qualified persons to undertake 'healthchecks' of draft neighbourhood plans.   We found this process very useful, at the stage when we had a relatively advanced draft of our Plan and prior to the 6 week statutory pre-submission consultation.  

 

Because we were having arguments with the local authority over the extent to which a NP can change or vary Local Plan policies, we asked the NPIERS service to provide nominations for an independent assessor with a legal background.  As a result, we secured the services of a highly experienced planning QC to 'healthcheck' our draft plan.  And with a fee limited to the modest daily rate set by NPIERS.

 

The resultant healthcheck report was invaluable.  It gave us the confidence to continue to press our case with the Council that the policy proposals in our plan met the requirement for general conformity.  It added to our understanding of what would be needed to justify our proposed Local Green Space designations.

 

When it came to selecting an examiner, the Council also used the NPIERS service.  We were able to agree the brief and criteria for selection.  Local authorities are required to consult with a neighbourhood forum on the choice of examiner.  We had by then convinced the Council that the then Director of Planning should step aside from the selection process, having expressed his views on some of our proposals in far from neutral terms (at one stage demanding that we should withdraw them).   Hence we were able to choose an examiner with relevant experience in London, from the three nominations offered.

 

The examination of the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan involved a public hearing.  Many NPs are examined without a hearing, but in our case there were contested issues between us and the Council, and between the Plan's proposals and the landowner and developer of a potential Local Green Space.  

 

To have had the Draft Plan examined and modified without a hearing would have felt unsatisfactory.  A neighbourhood forum normally has no other opportunity to explain its reasoning to the examiner and we wanted the chance to state our case.

 

Government guidance is for public hearings to be the exception rather than the rule, as part of independent examinations of neighbourhood plans.   Giving the growing number of NPs, many in recent months have been examined without a hearing (and a significant number have been examined by the same individual).   Our suggestion would be to look carefully at examination reports, note the extent of modifications made, and to try to obtain the services of examiner who you feel will do justice to your forum's plan.  

 

There is no way to guarantee that the examination of any NP will include a public session.  This is entirely a decision for the individual examiner involved.  But a plan that is ambitious in introducing innovatory policies, proposes site allocations or designations, or seeks to vary Local Plan policies is more likely than not to have an airing in public.  

In our view, such a hearing has merits.  If nothing else, it demonstrates that any objectors to proposals in the draft plan have had the chance to have their say.  At a time when neighbourhood plans have become a regrettably frequent subject of legal challenge, this is a bonus.

 

What next for neighbourhood planning?

 

These are our six suggestions for issues that London neighbourhood forums should give thought to, in addition to the helpful guidance provided by Locality and others. 

 

This new part of the English planning system looks to be here to stay, having survived one General Election and having cross-party support.  Measures in the Housing and Planning Act (especially the proposals on 'permission in principle' being granted via neighbourhood plans) may add further strength to the process. 

 

But unless things begin to move faster in London, with more NPs being brought to a conclusion and having some impact, London Boroughs and major developers will continue to view neighbourhood planning as an irrelevance that can be safely ignored. 

 

Hence the importance of the London Neighbourhood.Planners network providing some more impetus and a source of up to date knowledge exchange.  

 

I am happy to respond to any queries raised by the above article/blog piece, and can be contacted at info@stqw.org.

 

Henry Peterson

Chair St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Forum

www.stqw.org

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