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Neighbourhood plans can have real bite. Developers or landowners promoting development in areas where a neighbourhood plan is in force or being brought forward should consider carefully whether they need to engage in the process and the likely impact on their proposals.
What are neighbourhood plans?
Neighbourhood plans allow communities to bring forward local planning policies relating to development within their neighbourhood area. They can be promoted by town or parish councils or neighbourhood forums in areas without such councils.
To do so they must apply to the local planning authority for an area to be designated as a neighbourhood area, explaining why the proposed area is appropriate.
In March the Court of Appeal considered a challenge by the Daws Hill Neighbourhood Forum to the refusal of Wycombe District Council to designate all of the area applied for as a neighbourhood area.
The Court confirmed the Council had a wide discretion when considering such applications and it was appropriate for the Council to exclude two strategic sites from the proposed neighbourhood area not simply because they were strategic sites that would have a larger than local impact, but because proposals to redevelop both sites were well advanced.
Neighbourhood plans must be examined, which can result in modifications or even to the plan being found unsound. Before the plan fully comes into force, it must be approved in a local referendum. Neighbourhood plans are required only to meet 'basic conditions' set out in legislation.
These include requirements for the neighbourhood plan to be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the development plan, to contribute to sustainable development and for it to be appropriate to be made having regard to national policy and guidance. The examination is a much "lighter touch" process than that for local plans.
Neighbourhood plans have proved popular in London and the South East in particular, but they have been criticised for being used to try to limit development in their areas, particularly the construction of new homes.
A neighbourhood plan, once it is in force, becomes part of the development plan against which a planning application must be assessed. The National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) states that a neighbourhood plan can be brought forward before an up to date local plan has been adopted by the local planning authority 
Before the neighbourhood plan comes into force, the NPPG states that conflict with the emerging plan is unlikely to justify refusal, unless the proposed development is so significant it would undermine the plan making process or the neighbourhood plan is at an advanced stage, ie at the end of the six week consultation period before the plan is submitted for examination.
Commitment to neighbourhood planning
A recent decision  highlights the government's commitment to neighbourhood planning. Following a call in, the Secretary of State refused planning permission for 111 new homes in Broughton Astley, Leicestershire.
The main reason cited by the Secretary of State for refusing the permission was the conflict between the proposed development and the Broughton Astley Neighbourhood Plan, which was in force following a local referendum.
Significantly, the Council did not have an up to date local plan or a five year housing land supply. The Secretary of State agreed that the proposed development would help address the shortfall and placed substantial weight on this benefit.
Crucially however, he placed very substantial negative weight on the conflict between the proposed development and the adopted neighbourhood plan (even though the neighbourhood plan was also out of date in terms of housing land supply).
The Secretary of State concluded that, even though the presumption in favour of sustainable development applied, there were no material circumstances that would require the proposal to be determined other than in accordance with the development plan.
Neighbourhood plans and the NPPF
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that where a neighbourhood plan has been brought into force, a planning application that conflicts with that plan should normally be refused.
In light of the above decision - the absence of an up to date local plan and the lack of a five year housing land supply, are not necessarily abnormal circumstances sufficient to justify the grant of consent.
It remains to be seen whether the decision will be challenged.
Developers need to decide at an early stage how best to engage with the neighbourhood planning process and whether there may be merits in bringing forward an early application.
Challenges to neighbourhood plans
Challenging the validity of neighbourhood plans is unlikely to be easy in view of the "lighter touch" process referred to above. Earlier this month, the High Court issued its judgment in a challenge to the Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan brought by developers.
Of particular concern to the developers in this case was Policy 1 of the plan which permitted proposals of only 30 homes within or immediately adjacent to Tattenhall Village.
The inspector, with whom the Court agreed, concluded that Policy 1 was 'a ground-breaking policy' and 'a tangible example of how local planning can empower people to shape their own surroundings'. The developers argued that the 30 homes threshold was arbitrary and not evidenced-based.
The Court approved the inspector's conclusion that the figure was 'founded on the evidenced local desire to maintain and enhance the distinctive and cherished qualities of Tattenhall'.
Developers who are concerned that a proposed neighbourhood plan might adversely affect sites they own or control in an area should consider engage in the consultation process to express their concerns.
The body bringing forward a neighbourhood plan is required to consider and where relevant, address such concerns. The failure to give such consideration may be a ground for challenging the plan.
 Also confirmed by the High Court in R (BDW Trading Ltd & Wainhomes Developments Ltd) v Cheshire West & Chester Borough Council  EWHC 1470 (Admin)
 Recovered appeal: Crowfoot Way, Broughton Astley, Leicestershire (ref: 2183653, 17 April 2014) dated 17 April 2014
This article was written by Claire Fallows.
For more information please contact Claire on +44 (0)20 7427 1046 or firstname.lastname@example.org