Localism and planning: an outline

The Localism Act became law on 15 November. According to Greg Clarke, minister for decentralisation, it has “the potential to achieve a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people”.

Planning is one key aspect of this shift. The act aims, overall, to reduce the procedural detail and centralisation of the operation of the planning system.

Local authorities will continue to be required to perform their duties but are meant to be freer to do as they wish, provided that they break no laws. Regional strategies are abolished. Most decisions about Brighton and Hove will still be taken by the city council, except any proposed infrastructure projects of national significance, which will be determined by the secretary of state for communities and local government.

The local plan (referred to by our council as the city plan) will continue to be written by the council and to provide a formal statement of the council’s major outline policies on planning for the city. Previously, planning inspectors could insert important statements in the local plan at the public inquiry stage. In future, their discretion will be more limited.

The government intends to reduce central government decision-making on the content of local plans and wants the progress of these to be monitored by local communities, instead of being tied to national performance targets.

Local authorities should continue to submit development plan documents for independent public scrutiny to make sure plans are consistent with national policy. Local communities and landowners are to have the opportunity to debate relevant planning matters in a public forum.

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Specifically, local groups and communities can bid for neighbourhood forum status. If, after independent examination, a bid is accepted by a local authority, it is put to a referendum within the proposed community boundary. If 50 per cent vote in favour, the forum is approved and established and has sole neighbourhood powers in that area.

The forum produces a development plan, receiving technical support and advice from the council but no direct finance. Neighbourhood planning is intended to allow communities to say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go and what they should look like. The neighbourhoods can be very small and can cross local authority boundaries.

Most of the provisions concerned with neighbourhood planning are among those that came into force on the day the act was passed. Definitions and procedures are detailed in the act’s schedules.

Community groups may wish to form community organisations and apply for community right to build orders. Again, following an examiner’s report, a refusal or a referendum can be determined.

Local authorities are required to maintain a list of existing assets of community value – land or buildings providing cultural, recreational or sporting interests. Communities can nominate assets for inclusion.

Local people can initiate local referendums on local issues and councils and other public bodies must take the results into account. A requirement is placed on development applicants to carry out pre-application consultation and local authorities are allowed to ask developers, when building houses, shops and businesses, to pay a community infrastructure levy to support, for example, new roads or schools. Some of the proceeds will go directly to neighbourhoods.

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