Making neighbourhood planning work

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. Planning is more than a job: it is a vocation. It helps people articulate…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Planning is more than a job: it is a vocation. It helps people articulate their aspirations and ambitions for the place where they live. It promotes local prosperity, safeguards the environment, and expresses the unique character that makes different places special. This is a unique and incredibly valuable form of public service.

So it’s a tragedy that over-centralisation has led many people today to see the planning system in a poor light. Regional strategies and housing targets have succeeded not in boosting development but in generating antagonism. Bureaucratic procedures have put unnecessary hurdles in the way of local authorities preparing plans. Too many planning officers spend their time looking at individual applications on a case-by-case basis, rather than thinking creatively and imaginatively about local people’s long-term needs. In some senses, in fact, frontline professionals have been the first victims - bearing the brunt of local people’s resentment at a system that does not always feel like it is on their side.

The Government is committed to profound reform. The Localism Bill, currently before parliament, will scrap regional targets, do away with unnecessary bureaucracy, and allow people at a very local level to exercise more power than ever before.

Instead of imposing on people, we want to give them the opportunity to make their own choices through neighbourhood planning. Through the community infrastructure levy and the new homes bonus, we will ensure that that those neighbourhoods which choose to grow feel the benefits of that decision. Our aim is to give people real choice, real influence, and real reasons to say “yes” to development.

I want at this point to say thank you because the Planning Officers Society has already done much to inform our proposals. Your constructive input - including your paper at the end of October - has been very helpful as we’ve finessed and refined our plans. Many of the points that you made then - about the importance of local plans, about the crucial role of parishes, the need for leadership in planning authorities - are reflected in our proposals.

But I also know that as planners care more than anyone that these proposals should translate successfully into practice: and that you will wish to test, rightly so, exactly how neighbourhood planning will work. Of course that’s what today is all about, your chance to question the Chief Planner Steve Quartermain and the Department’s brightest and best planning minds about the detail. I want to address some of the key questions of principle upfront.

First, will people really want to get involved? The principle of involving and consulting people has been written into planning guidance since the 1960s. Authorities have, at times, struggled to get people involved in a positive way. And the stereotype goes that planning is the preserve of the sharp-elbowed middle classes. Now from my experience as a councillor I don’t think that’s accurate or fair. But I accept that authorities may see the same familiar faces commenting on numerous issues, while others decline to take part.

Neighbourhood planning is perfectly conceived to encourage greater involvement and from a wider range of people. The question of what happens to the village green, or the estate down the road, will feel far more direct and meaningful to most members of the public than the abstractions and high-level objectives of regional strategies.

What’s more, this is an opportunity not to be “consulted then ignored,” but to wield real power. Valid neighbourhood development plans, confirmed by a simple majority of the neighbourhood in a local referendum, must be brought into force by local authorities.

And the proof is in the pudding: there’s a pent-up desire to get on and do it, with a number of neighbourhood keen to lead the way.

The second question is, who will decide which local groups and bodies can do neighbourhood planning? One councillor described this to me as the “brass band” problem. In a town with two brass bands, which should represent local people in the county fair?

In the context of neighbourhood planning - what happens when two different groups in one geographic area claim to be the best representative of local opinion, and want to become the neighbourhood forum?

It will be up to the local authority to decide between competing proposals. They may not be able to please all of the people, all of the time. And in the past it has been very convenient to be able to say, truthfully, “my hands are tied” and to pass hot potatoes up to Whitehall. But as central government makes room for much greater discretion to a local level, we expect local authorities to show leadership.

Third, what does this mean for the local authority plan? Throughout all the proposed changes, the importance of high-quality, well-designed local plans is a constant. If anything, they will matter more.

With the abolition of regional strategies, local plans will show where and how different authorities intend to make common cause on strategic planning issues.

And they will set the wider context for neighbourhood plans. It is important for people to have the opportunity to express their ambitions for their very local area, but it’s also important that those ambitions are consistent with the needs and ambitions of the residents of the wider area.

So those authorities who have complete or well-developed plans should continue to use them, and those who do not should look to make swift progress as a matter of urgency.

The fourth question is, what does neighbourhood planning mean for our elected members?

It’s an often-repeated claim that that passing power to local people undermines locally elected representatives. But it is based on a basic misunderstanding of local democracy.

Neighbourhood forums, local activists’ groups, residents’ forums and the like don’t stop councillors doing their job. In as much as they make the area more prosperous and vibrant, they help councillors.

In a similar way, neighbourhood planning is an opportunity for locally elected representatives. They will be able to work with local people, to help them express themselves, to lead and inform the debate in the best interests of the local area. Councillors should not feel left out, they should get stuck in.

Fifth, and crucially, where are the resources coming from? Local authorities, like the rest of the public sector, are facing tight budgets. Against this backdrop, we recognise that neighbourhood planning - adapting to a new system, and meeting the duty to provide technical support and assistance to communities - is a new demand that needs to be properly resourced.

Central government will be providing support local authorities to make neighbourhood planning a real success story. In parallel, we will be inviting organisations including voluntary groups and social enterprises, to make bids on a fund to support local communities in the neighbourhood planning process.

But it’s not just about the money. And this brings me to my final point today - which is a challenge to you and your colleagues.

I believe there are huge opportunities for planners in the Localism Bill: freedom from regional imposition, greater scope to draw up plans without undue interference from inspectors, and the chance to forge a new relationship with local communities. This is a great time to be in the profession.

But making the most of this moment is going to require not just doing different things, but doing things differently. Your role is fundamental to delivering the Big Society and localism - enabling, supporting, mediating, collaborating, explaining options, finding solutions. Being a visionary.

This militates in favour of innovation, collaboration, passing down power. It means finding new approaches to working with communities, local business, residents, schools, service providers and young people. And it also means “letting go” of some traditional ways of working.

So I’m keen to work with the planning and development profession over the next few months - to understand the good things that you are already doing, and hear your successes - to make sure that we get not just the right mechanisms, but the right culture too, to put planning where it belongs - in the public’s trust and esteem and at the heart of the Big Society.

Published 24 January 2011