One of the many benefits of having become a Neighbourhood Planning Champion, in addition to speaking and networking around the country, has been the opportunity to meet civil service colleagues at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
This opportunity to share ideas and thoughts with those who are informing the development and future direction of government policy has been fascinating. I have participated in a number of focus groups and small group discussions, many of which have, of necessity, had to remain confidential at the time. Some of the issues discussed later emerge in updated planning guidance or revised policy. On other occasions they emerge from the mouths of Ministers.
Some of the topics explored have been around what needs to be done next to further the cause of Neighbourhood Planning. I have sat through hours of debate over what should be done to motivate reticent Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and parishes. Other discussions have revolved around the negative behaviour of some landowners and property developers.
A common thread has emerged from such discussions; the desire to empower more local communities and the need to strengthen guidance to those making planning decisions with a view to building more homes. Parishes and Neighbourhood Forums appear to have found a champion in the present government. Regrettably this has not been to the liking of a few planning authorities. Fortunately they appear to be in the minority.
Last week saw one of our discussion topics emerge in the national newspapers: the desire of government to encourage the building of more starter homes for local families, perhaps using brown field sites and occasionally green belt land. Prior group discussion had revolved around the notion of discounted capital arrangements, say 25 per cent to make such new homes more affordable.
Neighbourhoods present raised an important point. Parish councils with the general power of competence and a Neighbourhood Plan could perhaps become housing authorities in miniature. Many were keen to become directly involved in providing houses to rent for local families.
The role of housing associations and their current relationship with principal local authorities is increasingly coming under the microscope. Instead of just individuals being able to benefit from possible new funding arrangements, representatives were keen to enquire about the possibility of parish councils being able to access some form of discounted funding. The expression of interest was noted.
Here in Rutland, after a very positive start, the county council appears to now be concerned about a loss of control and limited resources and is trying to impose a quota system and timetable on parishes wishing to undertake a neighbourhood plan. Oakham TC for example has allegedly been told it must wait until next year! The potentially innovative meeting with housing developer Bloor mentioned in my last column was blocked by the portfolio holder for planning, reportedly at the request of planning officers. During a pre-meeting the portfolio holder, who interestingly is also a member of the development control committee, stated that RCC had no intention of allowing parishes to be represented at working meetings on planning applications emanating from completed neighbourhood plans.
This disappointing decision is to be debated at the next meeting of Uppingham Town Council. It should also figure on the next agenda of the county’s Parish Council Forum.
The irony of the above is that government and local communities are now likely to further strengthen their dialogue on how they jointly go about providing more homes for local families. I anticipate further “guidance” to LPAs on how such a goal should be achieved. It will be a tragedy if the planning function becomes a hindrance rather than a help.
Ron Simpson is co-ordinator of the Uppingham Neighbourhood Forum and secretary of the Uppingham First Community Partnership and the voluntary sector Rutland Consortium.