So that’s it – the Localism Act, which will bring about a seismic shift in the planning system in England and Wales, is out of the traps having received Royal Assent this week.
Billed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles as the “biggest transfer of power in a generation”, many of its provisions come into force immediately. Localism is a reality.
For local communities it gives them considerable powers to influence their built environment through neighbourhood development orders, neighbourhood development plans and community right to buy orders.
For developers it’s a great opportunity to play a positive enabling role by working hand in glove with communities to help them realise their aspirations.
Neighbourhood planning will allow residents, employees and business to come together through a local parish council or neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like.
And that in turn creates great opportunities for developers and business to engage with local communities at an early stage because neighbourhood planning means just that – communities will be able to grant full or outline planning permission themselves, within of course a broader planning policy framework.
The Government has said planning authorities will be required to provide technical advice and support as neighbourhoods draw up their proposals, but the reality is that it will be quite an onerous process, including the need for a local referendum for neighbourhood plans and orders.
That’s another opportunity for developers to play an important enabling or even sponsorship role, but early community engagement will be crucial, as will professional communications.
The Act also places a new statutory responsibility on developers to carry out pre-application consultation for certain developments. That includes publicising the proposed application to the majority of people living nearby. And local planners are being encouraged to agree consultation plans with applicants in advance, so preparation is everything.
Once developers have completed their consultation they will have to demonstrate how they have carried out their statutory responsibility to consult, what the feedback from the process has been, and how they have responded.
From our experience of advising and delivering communications strategies and producing statements of community involvement for developers, the Localism Act merely reinforces what many have regarded as best practice for years.
Since the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 there has been a greater onus on developers to carry out pre-application consultation to try and achieve consensus. The Act reinforces this.
Another effect of the Act is to unfetter local members from commenting on planning applications, irrespective of committee membership. Before now councillors were bound by so-called ‘predetermination’ rules to ensure that they came to council discussions with an open mind. The Act does away with this, making it clear that ‘it is proper for councillors to play an active part in local discussions, and that they should not be liable to legal challenge as a result’.
Developers should be mindful of the new opportunity this gives elected members to speak their mind on local issues, without fear of being accused of bias or losing their committee vote. This is designed to ‘enrich democratic debate’. In practice that means a more politically charged atmosphere when applications are determined.
Localism is here, and with it new rules of engagement. Ignore them at your peril.
• If you have a community consultation requirement then contact us here at DCA. For a plain English guide to the Localism Act click here
Posted by @DCAJason