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December 2010
Civic Voice - talking civic sense

news alert

Localism Bill

The long expected Localism Bill heralding a major review of the planning system and the introduction of new community rights has been published. It will spend the next year going through the Houses of Parliament and is expected to come into force in 2012. It is one of the most important pieces of legislation for civic societies in a generation.

Call to action

This news alert includes a number of suggested actions for civic societies and volunteers to consider:

  1. Have a discussion about the implications of the Localism Bill with fellow civic volunteers and the opportunity to put your civic society forward to help deliver a neighbourhood plan - some civic societies like Banbury and Bristol have already begun and those groups which take the initiative will be well placed to shape events
  2. Ask your town or parish council (if you have one) about its intentions to develop a neighbourhood plan
  3. Provide feedback on the Localism Bill and the changes to the planning system to Civic Voice (info@civicvoice.org.uk)
  4. Tell us if you want to join an email group of interested civic volunteers and/or attend a half day workshop (info@civicvoice.org.uk)

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Key announcements

Introduction to the Localism Bill

This news alert provides a quick overview of the key announcements. The Bill provides real opportunities for civic societies to play a much stronger role in shaping planning decisions and securing the future of important buildings and public services but it is not without its risks. There is a strong expectation from the Government that "in many cases....civic groups will become neighbourhood forums" to prepare the new neighbourhood plans.

The announcements are summarised in the following documents and links. Civic Voice features in many of them and we have been lobbying hard on behalf of civic societies with Ministers, their advisors and the senior civil servants drafting the legislation.

  1. Read the Government's Localism Bill press release here
  2. Read the earlier Government press release on neighbourhood plans (with a Civic Voice quote) here
  3. Read the Government press release on the community right to buy (with a Civic Voice quote) here here
  4. View the Government video (with a Civic Voice contribution) on the community right to buy here
  5. Read the "essential guide" to the Localism Bill here
  6. and media background note here

Civic Voice is well placed to influence the legislation on behalf of civic societies. We are the only community based group on the Government's Planning Sounding Board, and have already had significant influence.

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Neighbourhood planning

The Bill introduces radical new powers for communities to prepare "neighbourhood plans". This will be done by the town or parish council where they exist or by neighbourhood forums elsewhere. The official explanatory notes to the Bill say that "In many cases, it is expected that existing residents associations or civic groups will become neighbourhood forums." Preparing a neighbourhood plan is optional. The local council needs to agree the boundaries for a neighbourhood plan and will resolve competing claims to prepare it.

A neighbourhood plan can provide planning policies for an area and/or zone parts of it for development. They can vary in the detail provided. The neighbourhood plan can make a "neighbourhood development order" for areas zoned for development. In effect this grants either full or outline planning permission without the need to put in a separate planning application. This could also be extended to include types of development (such as house extensions) as well as areas zoned for development.

A neighbourhood plan must fit in with national planning policy and the strategic elements of the council's Local Plan (for example on house building numbers or Green Belt). All plans will be reviewed by an independent examiner (who will not be a Planning Inspector) to certify that they fit in. A neighbourhood plan will be agreed in a public referendum where a majority of those voting need to support it. Once a neighbourhood plan has received a majority vote in favour then it must be adopted by the local council whether or not it agrees with the content, and formally becomes part of the "development plan". There will then be a presumption in favour of implementing its policies.

Implementing the neighbourhood plan will be supported by two new sources of funding:

New Homes Bonus- where the Government will match the council tax raised by each new house for 6 years

Community Infrastructure Levy- where a "meaningful proportion" of the charge placed on developers will be handed to the local neighbourhood where development is taking place directly to the local neighbourhood so community groups can spend the money locally on the facilities they want, either by contributing to larger projects funded by the council, or funding smaller local projects like park improvements, playgrounds and cycle paths.

The combination of powers to write neighbourhood planning policies, grant planning consent and deploy new financial resources has the potential to be very powerful. It will be important that civic societies help ensure the new approach is used for the benefit and not at the expense of the local place.

A key issue will be the availability of advice and guidance to support local communities prepare neighbourhood plans. In many cases we can expect this to be provided by private sector interests, such as major landowners, volume house builders with an option on land in the neighbourhood or a major supermarket chain. The Government is also expected to announce a new fund to support local communities which will replace Planning Aid. Civic Voice is exploring what role we can play in providing extra support to civic societies and others to deliver neighbourhood plans and we would welcome your views.

Councils are also being invited to pilot the new approach and we will be writing to a number of civic societies about this. Read more here

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Community rights

The Localism Bill introduces a number of new rights for communities. These include:

Right to buy community assets- Civic societies and other local groups will have a legal right to identify important community assets such as museums, libraries, pubs and shops and be given an option to come forward with a funded business plan to take them on if the asset goes on the open market. The owner will still be free to sell the asset to someone else. The breathing space will, however be welcomed by many, especially at a time when many historic buildings and other assets owned by public bodies are being sold. The ability to prepare a "local list" of community assets also has parallels with the local lists of historic buildings and other structures which many civic societies are involved with. There will be consultation over how this new right will work during 2011

Right to trigger local referendums- residents will be given new powers to initiate referendums on any local issue that matters to them. Where 5% or more of the local electorate signs a petition the council will be required to put that issue to a vote

Right to challenge- this gives community groups new powers to bid to take over a local service - such as a museum - with local councils required to respond and address the positive impact on the community.

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Other changes

In addition the Localism Bill:

  • Repeals Regional Spatial Strategies and introduces a new duty on local planning authorities to co-operate on issues that span more than one council area
  • Abolishes Regional Development Agencies
  • Merges the Infrastructure Planning Commission with the Planning Inspectorate and ensures final decisions will be made by the Secretary of State
  • Requires developers to consult communities before submitting applications for large developments
  • Strengthens enforcement of planning controls
  • Provides for a ballot on directly elected Mayors in 12 cities -Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield
  • Gives additional powers to the London Mayor and full responsibility for more major developments to London boroughs
  • Provides local authorities with a general power of "competence" which will free them up to be more entrepreneurial.
  • Allows councils to return the the committee system if they wish.

As yet there is no community (or third party) right of appeal in the Bill despite this being a commitment of both parties in the Coalition Government. We are continuing to press for a right of appeal against development which would cut across the neighbourhood plan and thereby compromise the effort civic societies and others will put into their preparation. We hope the Bill will be amended during the debate in the Houses of Parliament.

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We would welcome your feedback on the Localism Bill and what we can to do strengthen and improve it. If there is a strong demand then we will organise a workshop to discuss it. In the meantime please:

  • Feed your comments on the legislation back on info@civicvoice.org.uk
  • Let us know if you want to be part of an email group or attend a half day workshop
  • Post your comments on the online discussion forum and comment on others here
  • Join Civic Voice Live on Tuesday 11thJanuary at noon for one hour when Tony Burton will be online to take views and respond on the discussion forum.

We welcome comments on any aspect of the Localism Bill and are particularly interested in your views on:

  • The proposed new neighbourhood plans and how these can be improved?
  • The effect of introducing neighbourhood development orders through which planning permission is granted via the neighbourhood plan?
  • What practical support by way of facilitation or independent advice would be most helpful to civic societies in taking a lead in preparing a neighbourhood plan or working with a parish or town council?
  • What other changes to the planning system would help give communities more power or provide extra safeguards (e.g. enforcement, community rights of appeal)?
  • The new "community right to buy" which provides powers to list important community assets to be identified in advance and gives community groups the opportunity to put together a bid to take them on if they are put on the market?

The Localism Bill will be debated in the House of Commons for the first time in the middle of January and its key provisions are intended to come into force in early 2012.

We will be asking civic societies to contact local MPs as part of our lobbying on the Bill and providing copies of our briefings online. Please let us know of any contact you have with MPs and visit our planning campaign page here

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