Boundary clashes with councils continue
Mark Walker & Henry Peterson
When a neighbourhood forum submits a designation application for a neighbourhood area, what are the expectations for the outcome? Recent decisions by two planning authorities in London have opened up new questions on the grounds for ‘refusing’ such an application or varying very significantly the area applied for.
For parish councils across England, the picture is more straightforward. Where a parish council applies for the whole of the area of the parish to be designated as a neighbourhood area, the local planning authority must designate the whole of the area applied for. All involved have certainty and predictability on the outcome.
To date, most local authorities seem willing to designate most or all of the neighbourhood area applied for by a neighbourhood forum. Some councils in London have taken a long time to make decisions and a few make clear their opposition to neighbourhood planning. National Planning Practice Guidance as published in 2014 (paragraph 036) included the sentence "The local planning authority should aim to designate the area applied for". This significant statement has mysteriously disappeared from the currently published version of the guidance (at paragraph 035). Enquiries to DCLG as to why this has happened have yet to elicit a response.
London has seen a slower rate of take up of neighbourhood planning than elsewhere in England. The reasons for this have been discussed at conferences and seminars, and analysed by Neighbourhood Planners.London in its analysis of the relationship between Local Plans and neighbourhood plans across London. Lack of enthusiasm for the process amongst Borough planning departments has been a common explanation. Some of those Councils which proved resistant in the early days have since become more positive, or at least more amenable. There now remain nine boroughs in London with little or no neighbourhood planning activity.
The Old Oak Interim Forum established itself back in 2015. Residents associations in and around the UK’s largest regeneration area (the site of the proposed HS2/Crossrail interchange, north of Wormwood Scrubs in West London) came together to discuss what contribution local people could make in planning the future of this part of the city. Eighteen months of discussion with the Mayoral Development Corporation (Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation) followed. The Corporation has been the planning authority for the area since April 2015, taking over planning powers from Ealing, Brent and Hammersmith & Fulham Councils.
A cross-boundary designation application was submitted in April 2017, to the OPDC and to Hammersmith and Fulham Council. The proposed neighbourhood area (blue line on map) was large (280 hectares) but not the largest in London to date (Highgate, with a ‘made’ neighbourhood plan, is larger at 500 hectares). Areas such as Kennington/Oval/Vauxhall, and Kentish Town, include sites earmarked for ‘regeneration’ along with substantial areas of brownfield land).
The decisions made on designation, by the OPDC Board and by Hammersmith and Fulham Council, have been very disappointing for those local residents who put in much time and effort in making the case for neighbourhood planning within a major regeneration area. The six week statutory consultation on the application went well. There were 198 responses from the public, a very high figure for such consultations in a London context. Of these responses, 82% supported the proposals in the designation application. There were objections (unsurprisingly) from the major landowners and developers in the area who have been assembling sites over many years and are now positioned to make substantial gains from the rise in land values in the OPDC area.
The OPDC Board and Hammersmith and Fulham’s Cabinet made a set of separate decisions in early September which have largely scuppered the ambitions of the Old Oak Interim Neighbourhood Forum. The details are explained on the forum’s website at www.oldoakneighbourhoodforum.org.
For other neighbourhood planners across London, who may be negotiating a potential outcome to their own designation application, here are some key points to watch out for:
- In seeking grounds to justify their decisions, both planning authorities relied heavily on one of the nine ‘considerations’ identified in National Planning Policy Guidance (paragraph 033) as factors to consider when designating a neighbourhood area. This paragraph is headed "What could be considerations when deciding the boundaries of a neighbourhood area?" The list of bullet points in the guidance, most of which relate more to rural rather than urban areas, includes a possible ‘consideration’ which reads ‘the physical appearance or characteristics of the neighbourhood, for example buildings may be of a consistent scale or style’. National guidance defines these bullet points as ‘considerations’ which ‘could’ be relevant. OPDC decision-makers used the term ‘criteria’ in their committee discussions on the Old Oak application, implying a set of requirements that need to be met in order for an area to be designated. This is a very different interpretation as compared with the guidance actually says. In a London context, it is very rare for any ‘neighbourhood’ to include buildings of a consistent scale or style. London’s neighbourhoods will as a rule include a wide mix of buildings with different uses, built at different times and in different styles. Is there any neighbourhood area designated in London to date where the buildings can be said to be consistent or uniform in their style And what relevance does this have in defining what locals see as ‘a neighbourhood’?
- A second ground used by both planning authorities was that large parts of the area proposed by the Old Oak Interim Neighbourhood Forum were viewed as ‘strategic sites’. NPPG advice is clear (at paragraph 036) that neighbourhood areas can include ‘strategic sites’. National infrastructure projects, such as the proposed HS2 station at Old Oak Common are ‘excluded development’ for which proposals cannot be included in a neighbourhood plan. This context was acknowledged in the designation application of an Old Oak neighbourhood area. The forum had no aspirations to move the site of the proposed HS2 station to some different location.
- A third ground used was that various landowners and developers of sites within the proposed neighbourhood area had submitted objections as part of the 6 week consultation on the designation application. These included Cargiant/London and Regional Properties (who have assembled a 46 acre landholding to develop their their plans for ‘Old Oak Park’, and QPR Football Club (who have aspirations to build a 30,000 seat football stadium at Old Oak). Several meetings and discussions with these landowners/developers had taken place prior to submission of a designation application. In their subsequent formal responses to the consultation, both parties included the usual warm words about the value of ‘engagement’ with local people, before going on to argue that own sites should be taken out of the neighbourhood boundary. Other smaller landowners followed suit, as did Network Rail.
- The GLA (on behalf of the Mayor) argued (wholly inaccurately) that the proposed neighbourhood area was ‘unprecedented’ in its size, for a designation within London. Transport for London and Network Rail argued for removal of areas on grounds of complexity and ‘strategic sites’. The OPDC concluded that Wormwood Scrubs itself, as Metropolitan Open Land, was too ‘strategic’ to be included in a neighbourhood area.
On these various grounds, the OPDC Board made decisions to remove 89% of the area proposed, and to designate only a segment with a boundary tightly drawn around the existing residential streets to the west to Wormwood Scrubs (green line). All of the major development sites have been removed. The scope for a neighbourhood plan that says anything of influence about how 24,000 new homes should be implanted within London’s last major regeneration area, has been severely limited.
Ensuring the successful integration of this new development is being left to planning officers in City Hall, with little input from the Borough Councils who will take back the land when the life of Development Corporation expires and an even more minimal contribution from those who know the area well.
The implications for other parts of London, where ambitious neighbourhood planning proposals have come forward or are now being considered, are alarming. There is no appeal process against the decisions of local planning authorities on designation. Judicial review, even where a case is strong, is an expensive legal process beyond the means of most neighbourhood forums. The balance of views expressed in the statutory consultation exercise on designation, even when numbers of responses are substantial, can too readily be brushed aside.
In response to a cross-boundary application, Hammersmith and Fulham Council designated a separate neighbourhood area (dark red line) from that approved by the OPDC. This covers only the early 20th century Old Oak Estate, south of the OPDC boundary. Already a well protected conservation area, there is little scope for site allocations or new policies in respect of this estate.
The decisions by both planning authorities have raised questions as to whether a single designation application can lead to designation of two separate neighbourhood areas. Both OPDC and LBHF insist that under the 2011 Act ‘multiple areas’ can be designated, carved out from that applied for. What next? Can a single forum, provided that it has 21 members living or working in each of these ‘multiple areas’, proceed to prepare a neighbourhood plan for each?
The Interim Forum’s understanding has always been that each designated area must have a separate and unique neighbourhood forum. This now seems to be thrown into doubt. It may prove that these decisions will prove to be a one-off, and will not become precedents followed by other London planning authorities. If a landowner/developer has only to ask that their own site is ‘removed’ from a proposed neighbourhood boundary, this demolishes the NPPF concept of neighbourhood plans as a ‘powerful tool’ to allow local people a say in what sort of development takes place where, within their own locality.
And where does national guidance suggest that the neighbourhood planning framework is ‘inappropriate’ for use in regeneration or ‘opportunity areas’? The examination process and requirements for ‘general conformity’ remain as a basic safeguard for the local planning authority, and ensure that major and strategic policies are not undermined. Back on the ground in West London, other neighbourhood forums are likely to emerge within and around the OPDC area, as local residents and businesses continue their efforts to have their voices heard. The neighbouring St Quintin and Woodlands area in North Kensington already has a completed plan, successful at referendum in 2016. Harlesden’s neighbourhood plan is well advanced.
In the meantime, any thoughts from Neighbourhood Planners.London supporters on the decisions made by OPDC and Hammersmith and Fulham Council would be welcome – particularly on the interpretation of Section 61G(5) of the 2011 Act and the idea of ‘multiple areas’ being designated off the back of a single application.
Mark Walker, Chair Old Old Oak Interim Neighbourhood Forum Henry Peterson, Adviser to the Forum