'Planning bill promises local decisions but prioritises central policies'

Hampstead High Street. Picture: Ken Mears

Hampstead's Neighbourhood Plan was approved in 2018 - Credit: Ken Mears

It is hard to know what to make of the Levelling Up bill recently published by the government.

On the face of it, it will increase the importance of neighbourhood planning – that is, the ability of communities to write planning policies that can influence development in their local areas. 

Therefore, it is worth paying attention. Camden alone contains seven areas with neighbourhood plans in force. The government says these will be given greater weight in planning decisions. In addition, the bill offers the possibility for a neighbourhood forum to write a broader "neighbourhood priorities statement" that a local authority like Camden must take into account when writing its own plan. 

More controversially, and with no detail, it provides for "street votes" under which a street’s residents could hold a referendum on whether to approve their neighbours’ house extensions.  

Alexander Nicoll

Alexander Nicoll has concerns over the Levelling Up bill - Credit: A Nicoll

The Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum, like its peers, is non-political. But without venturing into politics, there are reasons to be sceptical about the bill. 

Firstly, the government has performed a substantial U-turn from a white paper that proposed to dismantle England’s planning system, weakening and slashing local plans. Tory MPs, fearing mass development of green constituencies, forced those changes to be dropped. Already, there are rumblings from the Conservative benches about the new bill. Experience suggests that the degree of commitment to the new language must be in question.

Secondly, the bill contains a contradiction. On the one hand, the government says it will "strengthen the role of democratically produced plans", including both local and neighbourhood plans. However, in the very next paragraph of its explanation, it says it will create a "suite of National Development Management Policies". The bill makes clear that in the event of a conflict, the national policies will take precedence.  

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So the bill pulls in opposite directions: towards localism and centralisation. Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, said it would "severely curtail the input of residents into decisions on what gets built in their neighbourhood". 

Neighbourhood plans like Hampstead’s derive entirely from public consultation. Ours took four years to write, and was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum. In the autumn, we plan to consult again with residents to find out if our plan’s vision and policies are still appropriate. But we will need to keep an eye over our shoulder to make sure that it will still be worth the effort.

Alexander Nicoll is chair of the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum