Plan public  consultation - you are free to comment at any time on the policies below

Our Neighbour Merrow’s comments: The Localism Act became law on 16 November 2011 and gives local communities and councils greater powers and freedom from the Government machine in Whitehall. Many of the measures came into effect in April 2012 although a number of provisions still need the Government to make further Regulations to implement them fully.

The MRA Executive Committee believes this Act, particularly those measures relating to Planning, is very significant and should be of interest to members. Therefore, a summary of the Act has been posted on the MRA website and copied in the text below with thanks to  Keith Meldrum & Jim Rattray

Localism Act 2011 Briefing – PART 1

PLANNING

The Localism Act became law on 16 November 2011 and sets out plans to give communities and local government greater powers and freedom from Whitehall. The Act is part of the Government’s efforts to implement its concept of the Big Society whose aims were summarised simply as ‘Empowering Communities’, ‘Opening up Public Services’ and ‘Building a Stronger Civic Society’. In delivering more than 30 specific commitments in the Coalition Agreement, there is no denying the ambitious scope and sheer weight (at 438 pages) of the legislation.

The Localism Act tackles one key ingredient of the Big Society that the best decisions are made locally and that local communities are best placed to decide on what services they want and how to deliver them. The five key measures in the Localism Act intended to decentralise power are:

Part 1 of this Briefing is a summary of the provisions dealing with Planning and associated Community Rights. Part 2 covers other Community Rights and the remaining measures listed above.

The Act contains a number of provisions intended to improve the planning system including:

(A) Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs) which are a new tier in the planning system. They are not compulsory but are intended to enable local communities to shape the development of their neighbourhoods. NDPs will have to be in general conformity with the strategic policies in the local authority’s plan and so whilst a community can approve the same or a greater level of development as that already set down in its local council’s plan, it will not be able to reduce it. Aspects that local communities will be able to influence include the siting of houses, shops, offices and businesses, what type they are and what they look like. Planning decisions will then have to be taken in line with the NDP unless there is good reason for doing otherwise.

There are no definite rules about what would be an appropriate area for an NDP and it will be left to the local authority to decide whether a proposed area makes sense. For example, Merrow could be combined with Burpham.

In areas in which there are parish councils, they will take the lead in deciding whether an NDP is needed. In an area such as Merrow where there is no parish council, a local group (Neighbourhood Forum) will need to take the initiative on co-ordinating the local debate and subsequently drafting the plan. This could be an existing group or a new group formed for the purpose.  The Forum must comprise a minimum of 21 people who should all:

Live in the neighbourhood area subject to the plan; or

Work in the neighbourhood area; or

 Be elected members of a council body within which the plan area falls.

A Forum then has to be approved by the local authority if it is satisfied that it has been established for the purpose of promoting or improving the social, economic and environmental well-being of an area.

When an NDP is eventually produced it will have to undergo examination by an independent examiner who will check that it conforms to certain criteria such as the strategic content of the council’s local plan, the National Planning Framework and designations like ListedBuildings and Green Belts.

 Once the examination has been passed, the NDP will then need to be approved by way of a simple majority of those voting in a local referendum of local residents on the electoral roll. A positive vote will mean the local authority will have to adopt the Plan.

 (B) Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs) which will enable a local community to grant planning permission for specific types of development in its area. This could be either a particular development or a particular class of development it wants to see go ahead and allow, for instance, new homes and offices to be built without developers having to apply for separate planning permission.  A number of types of major development are excluded from NDOs, however.

 An NDO can only be prepared by a Parish Council or a Neighbourhood Forum for a designated Neighbourhood Area. Of course, it would be sensible for NDOs to be linked to the NDP for the area. For example, the Plan could identify the need for a local shop in a broad location. The Order could then apply a planning permission to a particular site or existing building where the shop will be built.   

 The NDO will have to meet some minimum standards and be approved by the community, before it can come into force. First, the council will carry out a number of checks to ensure the standards have been met including that there has been proper consultation on the NDO. Then the NDO will be assessed by an independent examiner who will check that it conforms to national and local planning policies. If the examiner approves the Order, then a local referendum on whether the NDO should be adopted will be held and if more than half of those voting vote in favour, the NDO will then come into force.

The local planning authority has a duty to provide technical advice and support to communities producing an NDP or NDO but the cost of producing them, eg obtaining specialist reports, will fall on the Parish Council or Neighbourhood Forum.  

(C) Community Right to Build Orders (CRBOs) which are a special type of NDO. Unlike NDOs and NDPs, any local community organisation, not just a Neighbourhood Forum or parish council, will be able to create a CRBO. To be eligible to develop a CRBO at least one half of a community organisation's members must live in the neighbourhood area. The organisation must also exist to further the economic, environmental and social well-being of the area in question and may also be required to make provision that any profits made as a result of a CRBO be distributed among the organisation's members. Development brought about by CRBO, eg a community centre, will be small scale and will be adopted by way of a referendum in the same way as NDOs.

The Act also requires pre-application consultation on very large scale developments such as residential development which could provide 200 or more new residential units, or (where the number of residential units to be constructed is not specified) with a site area of 4 hectares or more in order to give people a chance to have a say when there is still genuine scope for changes to be made.

In addition, new planning enforcement rules give councils the ability to take action against people who deliberately conceal unauthorised development and to tackle tactics that are seen as abuses, eg removing, in certain circumstances, the right to appeal against an enforcement notice and at the same time apply for retrospective planning consent. Also, planning authorities are given the power to decline to determine retrospective applications after an enforcement notice has been issued.

Ministers hailed the arrival of the Localism Act as triggering “the biggest transfer of power in a generation, releasing councils and communities from the grip of central government”. It certainly puts a raft of new planning rights and powers at the disposal of local people to take charge of their future if they choose to make use of them. However, it will be obvious that a great deal of work will need to be done by any local group wishing to establish a Neighbourhood Forum and produce a Development Plan. The MRA Executive Committee does not feel it has the expertise or time to start this process but that is not to say the MRA could not and would not be willing to support a move by any other organisation which shows an interest in trying to develop a Plan that covers Merrow.

Localism Act 2011 Briefing – PART 2

COMMUNITY RIGHTS AND OTHER MEASURES

This Part covers the following measures:

 Other Community Rights

 The Government believed that voluntary and community groups often found that their potential contribution is neglected, when, in fact, they carry out some of the most innovative and effective work in public services and so should be encouraged to get more involved. This Act passes significant new rights direct to communities and individuals and are aimed at making it easier for them to get things done and achieve their ambitions for the place where they live.

 Community Rights

The Community Right to Challenge allows voluntary and community bodies, parish councils or two or more members of council staff to express an interest in running a local authority service themselves, eg a leisure centre. Where the ‘expression of interest’ is accepted, the local authority must put that service out for tender. It does not mean though that the community body is guaranteed to get it.

The Community Right to Bid allows communities to nominate buildings and land that they consider to be of value to the community, eg community centres, libraries, swimming pools, village shops, markets or pubs, to be included on a local authority maintained list.

 A local authority will have to maintain a list of assets of community value and will have the final decision as to whether an asset is of ‘community value’. If any of the assets on the register are subsequently put up for sale, the community will be given an opportunity and time to organise a bid and raise money to buy it and keep it part of local life and so prevent it passing into private ownership or being closed down.

 This is not a right to buy but a right to bid if certain conditions are met.

 Housing

The Act brings in a number of reforms in the housing field aimed at enabling housing policy decisions to be taken at a more local level. These include removing the guarantee of a lifetime tenancy of social housing.

Under the previous system Local Authorities and Housing Associations were normally only able to grant lifetime tenancies. The Government has protected the security and rights of existing social housing tenants, including when they move to another social rented home but social housing landlords will now be able to grant tenancies to new tenants for a minimum of two years in exceptional circumstances with five years or more being the norm. There is no upper limit on the length of tenancy and Councils can still offer lifetime tenancies if they wish.

A national home swap scheme is to be introduced to enable people to swap their social home, for example because they wish to move jobs.

General power of competence

The general power of competence gives local authorities the power to do anything not specifically forbidden by law, ie anything an individual can do (rather than the previous system that allowed them only to do things that authorities were specifically allowed to do by law). This is intended to help councils to work more innovative to improve services, decrease costs and make decisions that will benefit their local area.

 The Government has also used the Localism Act to clarify the rules on ‘predetermination’ to enable councillors to play an active part in local discussions without fearing subsequent legal challenge. Councillors are required to come to council discussions and make decisions – eg on planning applications - with an open mind. In the past, this meant councillors often avoided campaigning or publicly expressing views on local issues, for fear of being accused of bias. The difference now is that the fact they have campaigned against a proposal which may be seen as a ‘predisposition’ that they hold a view in favour of or against an issue will not be taken as proof that they have a closed mind to the merits of an argument before making the final decision on an issue at the council meeting.

 Empowering cities and other local areas

 Provisions in the Act were triggered for the recent (mostly unsuccessful) referendums on directly elected mayors in the largest cities outside London and for mayoral elections to be held in those cities that voted in favour. Other cities can decide to hold referendums in future.

 Other measures in the Act worth a mention:

 Bin taxes are consigned to the dustbin of history. Councils’ ability to charge households for overfilling their bin and to introduce extra tariffs for taking away household waste has been removed. Separately, the Government is also providing extra support to councils who wish to offer their residents weekly bin collections.

 Councils are also given increased powers to remove illegal advertisements and graffiti and prevent fly-posting.

 Home Information Packs (HIPs) have finally been abolished [but not Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs)].

 Increased transparency on local pay requires councils to publish the salaries of senior officials such as the Chief Executive and other senior members of his team.

 If an authority proposes to raise council taxes above the limit set by government, it will have to hold a referendum to get approval for this from local voters who can veto the increase.

 Conclusions

 According to the Government, the effect of the Act will be to:

        Give new rights and powers to local communities, making it easier for them to improve local services and save important local facilities.

·        Give more freedom and flexibility to local government.

·        Reform the planning system, putting more power in local peoples' hands.

·        Ensure that housing decisions are taken locally.

June 2012 - April 2016