Having lost its infrastructure component between the Queen’s Speech and publication, the slimline Neighbourhood Planning Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons earlier in September, and its technical consultation is open for responses until 19 October 2016.
The most interesting element of the Bill from a neighbourhood plan perspective is the process for modifying a neighbourhood plan – although the requirement for subsequent regulations means the precise effect is not yet known.
This provision is helpful following the changes to the Planning Practice Guidance made earlier in the summer, which suggested that a fresh neighbourhood plan process would be needed (including a referendum) to update a plan where its policies become out of date.
The Bill provides a three tier process:
- The local planning authority may make minor modifications with the consent of the neighbourhood planning body, without further consultation, examination or a referendum.
- Where more substantial changes are proposed, a streamlined process is available (as long as the changes do not change the nature of the plan). An examiner will then consider the amended plan (normally via written representations, and a further referendum is not required).
- If the modifications would change the nature of the plan, a fresh neighbourhood plan process would be required.
While it is questionable how streamlined this written representation process will be, and whether it would apply in circumstances where neighbourhood plans must be updated to be in general conformity with new local plans, the prospect of a quicker and simpler way of modifying a neighbourhood plan is to be welcomed. Owners and developers will need to monitor carefully whether changes are being made that would prejudice their interests (and whether the process is being followed properly).
There are also several provisions which seek to give greater weight to neighbourhood plans, perhaps with political intentions. For example, provisions give weight to neighbourhood plans which have passed referenda but have not formally been “made” by the local authority. It is not clear how much of an issue this has been, particularly given the current Planning Practice Guidance which states that emerging neighbourhood plans can be a material consideration, referring back to paragraph 216 of the National Planning Policy Framework weighing of emerging plans. However, the Government is clearly keen to emphasise the importance of neighbourhood plans, and make it clear that local planning authorities cannot limit the consideration of neighbourhood plans by failing to “make” them. The Bill also requires local planning authorities’ statements of community involvement to set out their policies for giving advice and assistance with the making and modification of neighbourhood plans.
These changes demonstrate the continuing focus on and political will behind neighbourhood planning.