Whilst it would have been good to have the Housing White Paper to read over Christmas, I am hopeful that the extra time it is taking will bring some of the changes that we have been waiting for.
Whilst we await these changes there is time to consider the implications of the recent ministerial statement on Neighbourhood Plans. Lowering the bar on the 5YHLS test for neighbourhood plans so that the area only needs to have 3YHLS or more for the plan to be considered up to date could have a range of implications across the system.
On the positive side, it is more than likely that more Parishes and groups will wish to produce neighbourhood plans. It is also much more likely that they will allocate sites for housing as a result of the requirement to do so. For mainly rural areas this could create an increase in housing land supply across the wider area. This would appear to be the outcome that the Minister is seeking.
The more neighbourhood plans that earn themselves the protection, offered in the ministerial statement, the less land there is available to help meet the Development Plan deficit. The significant part of this statement is that neighbourhood plans do not work in isolation, they are part of a wider development plan for an area. It is difficult to see how one part of the development plan can be considered up to date and the rest not.
There is also the matter of OAHN to deal with. How much land would each individual neighbourhood plan have to allocate to earn the protection? The local plan has to allocate sufficient land to meet the OAHN for the area, this is clear. Neighbourhood plans have to be in general conformity with the local plan, this is also clear. When a Council falls below the 5YHLS as set out in their development plan the housing policies for that plan would be considered out of date. Does this mean that neighbourhood plans now need to allocate sites to make up the short term deficit across the development plan? If not, how can they be found sound?
Beyond the planning implications, however, is the impact on resourcing within planning services. Neighbourhood plans require assistance from local planning authorities throughout production. Under the existing extra burdens arrangements, the modification process is the same as that for creating a new plan, and it has been assumed that the full extra burden grant would therefore be payable. Whilst recognising that the streamlined process which removes the need for a referendum in all cases will reduce local authority costs, some funding will still be required to recognise the extra burden on the local authority of dealing with the modification and holding of an examination. The extra burden funds available to local planning authorities have been reduced by £10,000 to £20,000 per neighbourhood plan.
There is rarely any funding to recruit additional planning officers and so the resource to work on neighbourhood plans is taken away from local plan production. The increase in the production or review of neighbourhood plans will need to be programme managed in Councils to prevent a delay in local plan delivery. In areas that do not have a 5YHLS this could cause a real tension between the Council and the communities it serves.
On reflection, it would have been so much better to have a '5YHLS appeal free period' for the whole development plan from the point of adoption rather than protecting parts of the plan over others.
Still we have the white paper to look forward to......watch this space.
For so many reasons it will be good to wave goodbye to 2016 and say hello to 2017. I hope that you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Anna Rose, President 2016/17