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Localism laws unlikely to clarify planning decisions

Planning exerts have voiced concerns about a lack of clarity over how planning decisions will be made at a local level, even though the Localism Bill became law last week.

National Planning Policy “vital”

While the Localism Bill received Royal Assent, they said that a final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) − currently being consulted on − was also vital to decision making.

This will ensure that those making the decisions have the framework within which to assess projects.

The Localism Act is due to be implemented next April, and aims to reform planning policy by abolishing regional plans − coordinated by the now abolished Regional Planning Bodies (RPBs) − in favour of encouraging smaller communities and their local authorities to approve developments on a case by case basis.

“There are still many things to be worked out,” said law firm SJ Berwin partner Simon Ricketts. He added that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) had yet to publish official guidance for managing the transition.

“There are still many things to be worked out”

SJ Berwin partner Simon Ricketts

More than a third of local authorities have no up-to-date local plan.

“As a result nothing has changed from a planning point of view,” he said.

Another key feature of the Act is that local communities and businesses can set up Neighbourhood Development Plans, which will sit beneath local plans.

But law firm Norton Rose partner Nigel Hewitson said he doubted that community influence would have a significant impact on planning.

“Neighbourhood Development Plans … will be costly to produce and consult on, and will have to achieve more than 50% support in a [community] referendum,” he said.

Hewitson added that, even if plans overcome these obstacles, the new Localism Act will have little impact because the neighbourhood plans will have to meet the requirements of the overriding local authority plans.

Ricketts also said that the Act will do nothing to reduce the number of judicial reviews of projects. These are often blamed for holding up controversial infrastructure schemes for years.

Energy from waste schemes often find face such challenges. Energy firm Viridor chief executive Colin Drummond said there should be a planning policy mechanism to deal with the “vexatious” judicial reviews that have caused significant delays to several energy from waste schemes.

“We need localism in a national context,” added Drummond. “The trouble is the NPPF doesn’t spell out [the national context] properly.”

“We need localism in a national context”

Viridor chief executive Colin Drummond

The DCLG is in the process of reducing the NPPF document from over 1,000 pages to 50 in an effort to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. It is due to be ready by next April.

Key measures include presumption of development in favour of sustainable growth and the implementation of a Community Infrastructure Levy to fund infrastructure improvements.

The Localism Act also clears the way for Local Enterprise Partnerships (Leps) to develop local plans, but there appears to be much less money from central government than was available to the Lep predecessors (NCE 14 November).

The Act also replaces the government’s Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) with a new Major Infrastructure Planning Unit to deal with nationally significant infrastructure that will sit within the Planning Inspectorate.

Final decisions will be made by the relevant secretary of state.

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