The Devolution Dance: The Planning White Paper & Local Government Reorganisation, Neighbourhood Planning

A quick two-step:

1. Given its relevance to the proposals in the planning white paper, what is the Government’s current thinking on local government reorganisation (details of which are to be set out in the devolution and local recovery white paper)?

2. What role is envisaged for neighbourhood planning in the planning white paper?

Local government reorganisation

The planning white paper’s proposal that each district and borough be handed by MHCLG its own local housing need figure to meet in its plan would clearly be more manageable by Government if there were to be fewer districts and boroughs, or if there were to be more joint planning arrangements and Mayor-led combined authorities (“We also propose that it would be possible for authorities to agree an alternative distribution of their requirement in the context of joint planning arrangements. In particular, it may be appropriate for Mayors of combined authorities to oversee the strategic distribution of the requirement in a way that alters the distribution of numbers, and this would be allowed for.”).

Perhaps we are all putting two and two together and making five but there has been some expectation that with Strictly Come Dancing style choreography the devolution and recovery white paper would sashay in any moment now to propose the acceleration of the current process that has been underway in recent years, locally driven through funding constraints, of the ad hoc amalgamation of individual districts and boroughs into new unitary authorities.

Not quite panic on the dance floor but this prospect is causing temperatures to rise in various quarters, e.g. Leader denies Surrey plan to create largest unitary council in England is ‘county power grab’ (Surrey Live, 5 September 2020) (“Waverley Borough Council’s leader has denounced a county council proposal to create the largest unitary authority in England as “a disaster” and “a power grab by Surrey that should be resisted at all costs“.), Lancashire councils face abolition in shake-up (BBC, 29 July 2020) (“One senior Conservative figure in Lancashire argued the three-way division risked a “bloody civil war” within the party locally.”).

Before having to resign from Government on 8 September 2020, Simon Clarke was the MHCLG minister overseeing the white paper. He gave a speech to the Northern Powerhouse Summit on 15 July 2020:

“This September, the government will therefore be publishing the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper…which will lay a clear path for levelling up every region of our country.

It will provide a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.

In our towns, cities, and rural counties, we will give local places the ability to come forward with new mayoral devolution deals which work for every community, allowing them to become masters of their own destiny.

The White Paper will also redefine the way in which local government serves its communities by establishing the unitarisation of councils as a vital first step for negotiating these mayoral devolution deals in the future.

A move to unitarisation will streamline the delivery of good governance…”

Strong stuff. But then, possibly in the light of Clarke’s departure, the rumours started that the devolution and recovery white paper was to be delayed – the MJ reported that it was due to be published in October, during the week of the Conservative party conference, but has been “put on the back burner, pending a rethink”. See also LGCplus’ piece on 21 September 2020: Ministers accused of ‘starting fires and walking’ as reorganisation momentum collapses.

The rumours as to timing appear to be inaccurate, given MHCLG minister Lord Greenhalgh’s response to a question in the House of Lords on 22 September 2020:

“We intend to publish the devolution and local recovery White Paper the autumn. This will set out our plans for expanding devolution across England to support economic recovery and levelling up, building on the success of our directly elected combined authority mayors.”

But are we to see a watering down of the strong armed “unitarisation as a vital first step towards mayoral devolution deals” messaging of that Clarke speech? In Greenhalgh’s subsequent responses to questions in the same 22 September session, he seems to play down how radical the proposals will be:

“We are not looking at top-down devolution, but focusing on local city and growth deals as the way forward. We are not looking at top-down devolution, but focusing on local city and growth deals as the way forward.”

“… there will be no blanket abolition of districts and that we will take a locally driven approach and ensure that decision-making is taken as close as possible to the people we are serving.”

So possibly not the big bang argued for in a Centre for Cities report, Levelling up local government in England (11 September 2020), which proposed “redrawing the English political map, replacing the 348 existing authorities with 69 unitary or combined ones with greater powers and resources and whose political boundaries match the economic geography in which people live and work.”

“ • Everywhere will reform — all two-tier systems will be reformed to become single tier, while economic powers held in the lower tier of Mayoral Combined Authorities will move up

• Everywhere will have a directly-elected leader — voters will have a clear choice about who will be in charge and they will have clear four-year mandate to act

• Local government boundaries will match local economic boundaries — they will always be blurry, but the aim should be to contain as much of the local economy within the local authority area as possible — that is the area over which most people locally work and live their lives

• Local government will have the capacity to govern effectively while remaining local — economic powers should be held by local governments covering at least 300,000 people and no more than 800,000. This is to strike a balance between covering the local economy and maintaining a connection with local people and businesses. Lower-tier authorities in Greater London and where there is a Mayoral Combined Authority will focus on personal services and may be smaller than 300,000 people”

Could local government seriously cope with such wholesale change at the same time as swallowing a significantly changed planning system? Is it right to require local authority amalgamations as a pre-condition of funding? Does large scale unitarisation leave a local democratic deficit? But, on the other hand, can the system proposed in the planning white paper have a hope of working with so many individual authorities and without even the current discipline, wonky as it is, of the duty to co-operate? And, for London, what will be the role of the Mayor of London?

Of course, as we move towards larger unitary authority areas, thoughts turn to the potentially increased role for neighbourhood planning.

Neighbourhood planning

Someone asked me last week to summarise what the planning white paper meant for neighbourhood planning – would it end up with a greater or a reduced role under the new system? Not an easy question to answer on the basis of what is said in the document but I think we can at least deduce the following:

• neighbourhood planning is to be retained;

• it will in some ways have an enhanced role, including potentially in relation to the preparation of design guides and design codes;

• the Government appears serious about making community engagement more effective, through, for instance, greater use of technology;

• the neighbourhood share of CIL (up to 25%) will be retained under the new combined infrastructure levy;

• but in other ways the communities will have less influence through neighbourhood planning, (1) partly as a consequence of overall housing numbers for local authorities being imposed by Government, (2) partly through development management policies being standardised nationally through the NPPF and (3) partly as a consequence of various types of development approval being removed from the traditional planning application process (for instance growth areas in local plans having the equivalent of outline planning permission and by further expansion of permitted development rights).

There are only two proposals in the white paper that directly focus on the role of neighbourhood planning:

“Proposal 9: Neighbourhood Plans should be retained as an important means of community input, and we will support communities to make better use of digital tools

Since statutory Neighbourhood Plans became part of the system in 2011, over 2,600 communities have started the process of neighbourhood planning to take advantage of the opportunity to prepare a plan for their own areas – and over 1,000 plans have been successfully passed at referendum. They have become an important tool in helping to ‘bring the democracy forward’ in planning, by allowing communities to think proactively about how they would like their areas to develop.

Therefore, we think Neighbourhood Plans should be retained in the reformed planning system, but we will want to consider whether their content should become more focused to reflect our proposals for Local Plans, as well as the opportunities which digital tools and data offer to support their development and improve accessibility for users. By making it easier to develop Neighbourhood Plans we wish to encourage their continued use and indeed to help spread their use further, particularly in towns and cities. We are also interested in whether there is scope to extend and adapt the concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets – can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see.

Digital tools have significant potential to assist the process of Neighbourhood Plan production, including through new digital co-creation platforms and 3D visualisation technologies to explore proposals within the local context. We will develop pilot projects and data standards which help neighbourhood planning groups make the most of this potential.”

“Proposal 11: To make design expectations more visual and predictable, we will expect design guidance and codes to be prepared locally with community involvement, and ensure that codes are more binding on decisions about development.

“As national guidance, we will expect the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and the revised Manual for Streets to have a direct bearing on the design of new communities. But to ensure that schemes reflect the diverse character of our country, as well as what is provably popular locally, it is important that local guides and codes are prepared wherever possible. These play the vital role of translating the basic characteristics of good places into what works locally, and can already be brought forward in a number of ways: by local planning authorities to supplement and add a visual dimension to their Local Plans; through the work of neighbourhood planning groups; or by applicants in bringing forward proposals for significant new areas of development.”

Many of you know much more about local government and neighbourhood planning matters than me – all comments welcome (even if we’re just dancing in the dark).

Simon Ricketts, 25 September 2020

Personal views, et cetera

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