Pawns in their game? Neighbourhood plans win more powers

Neighbourhood plans in England are creating new lines of political conflict in the relationship between central and local government.

The new Housing and Planning Bill (2015) grants neighbourhood planning areas a right of appeal to the secretary of state in cases of disagreement with the local authority. In addition urban neighbourhoods that have a designated forum will get the right to be consulted over planning applications.

These new powers bear witness to the antagonism that has developed between many neighbourhood planning groups and their local planning authority. The legislation is also evidence of government intention to establish the neighbourhood as a new political identity that can be used to circumvent or circumscribe the power of local councils. The neighbourhood is emerging as the potential ally or pawn of central government in its fractious relationship with local authorities.

The Housing and Planning Bill imposes deadlines on local authorities to designate the neighbourhood planning areas and allows neighbourhoods to ask central government to intervene in disputes. The Bill addresses the anger of many neighbourhoods over delays and obstructions by the local planning authority. It also recognises the aspirations of neighbourhoods to become political entities in their own right.

This is not the first time that the government has stepped in to strengthen the political identity of the neighbourhood.  In a string of planning appeals since 2011, the secretary of state has championed the rights of neighbourhood plans against the interests of the volume house-builders and developers. The government seems to be demonstrating a commitment to devolve tangible authority to the neighbourhood while – at the same time – retaining and strengthening its centralised command of development planning.

The emergence of a new political identity at neighbourhood level has been seen as a threat by some councillors since it appears to undermine their representative role. Neighbourhood plans have to be in ‘general conformity’ with the local planning authority’s strategy but in non-strategic matters they can create their own planning policies and are subject to a much reduced form of examination.   They were introduced as part of a strategy to deregulate planning policy and may be seen as a vehicle for government subversion of the power of local councils.

But they also demonstrate an appetite for devolving power to the most local scale. Many neighbourhood plans have been successful in shaping development policy to benefit their localities. The localisation of plan making at neighbourhood scale has deepened the political complexity of land use and property market regulation and challenged the strategies of developers and the sovereignty of local authorities. The right to appeal to the secretary of state, and the right of urban forums to be consulted on planning proposals, will strengthen the ability of the neighbourhood to influence land use planning. The neighbourhood is emerging as a precocious new actor in the contested production of space

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