Stephen Sykes | 10 years ago

It is a wonderful thing to witness when the world shifts on its axis and a big idea takes hold and changes the agenda. Wonderful, but extraordinarily rare.

Great ideas are often less convincing once they have been written up, when the practicalities of definition, scope and implementation are being figured out; and the demise of many a great idea can sometimes be put down to small flaws which have been overlooked by the originator or implementers.

This may become the sad fate of localism, one of the Coalition’s big ideas: the devolution of decision-making to the lowest level. For example, as to the location of new homes to accommodate our burgeoning population.

What is Localism? 

For its most fervent and committed advocates, localism is much more than an idea. It is a political movement, a crusade.

Take the heady words in Greg Clark’s (the then Minister for Decentralisation & Planning) forward to Department for Communities and Local Goverment’s (DCLG) “Plain English Guide to the Localism Act 2011“:

“For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power. Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost”.

The social, political and financial prize for implementing the localism agenda successfully should be worth fighting for. Better decisions for the people, by the people. Stripping back bureaucracy at the national, county and district levels. If services can be delivered at a lower cost, imagine what could be done with the savings which would surely be substantial? Imagine the tax cuts that could be funded.

Given the ‘size of the prize’, one can completely understand why Localism was such an important and early priority for the Coalition. The Localism Act was passed in November 2011. However, it has to be acknowledged, two and a half years on, that the needle on the speed gauge has barely moved, the axis of the world has not tilted.

Implementing Localism – The Best Laid Frameworks and Plans 

Two of the Localism Act‘s principal aims were to “make the planning system more democratic and more effective” and to “ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally“.

Two key supposedly complementary mechanisms for these changes are the simplified national planning guidance and neighbourhood plans. Each of these mechanisms merit close consideration to see how they are working together to deliver the localism agenda.

National Planning Policy Framework [2012] (NPPF)

The NPPF offers a significantly reduced and hence simplified set of planning policy guidelines. Over a thousand pages of national planning policy has been condensed to just fifty pages of the NPPF.  The intention is to make the guidance accessible to planning and legal practitioners and non-professionals alike (e.g. parish councillors and members of the public engaged in the neighbourhood plan process: see below). Indeed, the NPPF is written in a style which encourages accessibility to people who are not planning professionals. The key question though is whether it is working?

The term ‘sustainable development’ is the so-called golden thread which runs through theNPPF. There is a presumption in favour of sustainable development and the term has a wide application. However, it is not explicitly defined in the NPPF document. Former parliamentary draftsman Francis Bennion wrote:

“The document [NPPF] contains no proper definition of the term ‘sustainable development’. It says ‘Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations’. What sort of definition is that?”(Quoted and acknowledged in S Tromans ‘Planning and Environmental Law – uneasy bedfellows‘, OP89)

One commentator has observed that:“sustainability… can simultaneously mean many different things to many different people.” (M Ellis, ‘Green growth: do blue and yellow really make green?’ (2011) Journal of Planning and Environmental Law 1433-1446, 1443.) It is highly revealing to note that different Coalition Ministers interpret the NPPF differently and according to their respective portfolios – the Minister for Business maintains that it would provide work for the construction industry, whilst the Environment Minister claims that it will help to protect green spaces! D Carrington, ‘Planning Law Changes: the crux is defining sustainable development’, The Guardian, refers to criticism of the NPPF by the National Trust, Campaign for Rural England and RSPB. It is hard to see how it can do both.

In Hunstan Properties Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2013] EWCA Civ 1610 the Court of Appeal clarified the interpretation of an important, but ambiguously worded NPPF policy, paragraph 47. In his judgement Sir David Keene commented, “Unhappily … the process of simplification [in the NPPF] has in certain instances led to a diminution in clarity” and consequent difficulties in interpreting some paragraphs of the Framework. There is trouble ahead.

It is possible that the central tenet of the NPPF, the concept of ‘sustainable development’, is deliberately obfuscated in order to dilute environmental objections to development and to give the fullest possible scope for developers to build new homes on greenfield sites. Even though this outcome will boost the economy around the regions of the UK and accommodate a growing population, there will be many who will look on aghast at what they will see as the stark distortion of the localism agenda in favour of development companies.

Neighbourhood Development Plans

The Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012 came into force in April 2012. Neighbourhood development plans empower local parishes to establish planning policies for land development in their areas, such as where new homes and offices should be built and what they should look like. As at 31st December 2010 there were 10479 parishes in England according to the Office of National Statistics.

DCLG describes neighbourhood planning as “a growing movement” – code, perhaps, when the original expectations for localisms are recollected, for a seriously underperforming initiative. The assumption set out in the impact assessment which accompanied the Localism Bill was that 380 neighbourhood plans would be created per year. (See also A. Walker, ‘Neighbourhood planning becoming slow and anti-development’, Bircham Dyson Bell blog (1.10.2013).) Whilst there are 1,000 communities currently working through the various stages of the process of creating a neighbourhood plan, only 14 neighbourhood development plans have so far passed examination and referendum. Why?

There are several factors which have undermined the grand idea of localism and giving local people a determining say about development planning, including;

  • Complexity. Neighbourhood plans have to conform to the NPPF guidelines, Local Development Plans (which incorporate Sustainability Appraisals), Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012, and EU Directives. Of the many challenges confronting parish councils in drawing up neighbourhood plans, compliance with sustainable development objectives (as noted above in the NPPF) is perhaps the most exacting because of its intangible nature.
  • Inconsistency. Inconsistent and often inadequate methods are being used at local level to determine the “sustainability” of neighbourhood development plans and development sites allocated within those plans, leading to unnecessary duplication of effort and time spent. There are no formal statutory requirements for neighbourhood plans to produce a sustainability appraisal. Nevertheless, they can be an invaluable tool for parishes allocating specific development sites against which to measure sustainable development objectives. There are no accessible DCLG approved templates to help local communities draw up the sustainability appraisals that need to accompany and underpin their plans in order for them to be approved by an independent examiner. As we have seen, sustainability is a difficult concept to understand. To expect thousands of parishes to reinvent the wheel of what a sustainability appraisal should contain is a very inefficient way to proceed. A simple template which identifies the elements of sustainability which need to be taken into account in determining the relative sustainability of different development sites would save the volunteers working on neighbourhood plans a great deal of time and effort.
  • Risk of Plan rejection. Some neighbourhood plans have hit the buffers. In January 2014 Slaugham Parish Neighbourhood Plan (SPNP) failed its independent examination in large part due to a lack of compliance with sustainable development criteria. (A Skippers, ‘Independent Examiner’s Report: Slaugham Parish Neighbourhood Plan 2013-31’ (17th January 2014), Summary.) Slaugham parish is within the Mid Sussex District Council (MSDC) boundaries, and MSDC currently has no up to date local development plan. According to the SPNP independent examiner, “given the District Plan context and as much of the parish falls within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)” there was no clear evidence that there had been a sufficiently “robust assessment of need and of suitable and available sites” in order for the plan to “contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, have regard to national policy and guidance and generally conform to the strategic policies of the development plan.”    There were procedural issues which the examiner found to have been not fully complied with, (A Skippers, paragraph 6.5 indicates an insufficient pre-submission consultation period) but the primary reasons for rejecting the submission were non-compliance with EU Directives and that the target for housing within the Plan timeframe had not been properly assessed.
  • Time and expertise. The enthusiasm of some parishes for neighbourhood planning is commendable, but it has to be questioned whether in fact volunteers at the local parish level, with no prior planning know-how, have the necessary expertise, time and resources to identify development sites and apply workable ‘sustainability’ criteria against which to assess these sites. The time commitment required by parish councillors and volunteers can easily run into many hundreds if not thousands of hours.


The absence of clear parameters when assessing the sustainable development objectives outlined in the NPPF has led to confusion and a wasting of resources at local level. Slaugham Parish Neighbourhood Plan cost £80,000  to produce. It would probably not be a Herculean task to address this shortcoming by developing a DCLG approved template for conducting a sustainability appraisal. This would reduce the risk of inconsistency, result in a more efficient use of resources and reduce the risk of a deficient neighbourhood development plan being rejected by the independent examiner. That, however, would still leave the issues of complexity and the need for additional expert support. It would be useful to know often local communities are turning to external specialist advisors to navigate the complex process, and whether the total cost of developing the neighbourhood plan generally costs the £80K which Slaugham Parish Council paid for its failed plan.

Acknowledgment. This blog draws on material from a dissertation on sustainable development and local planning, submitted by Anne Sykes for the Graduate Diploma in Law at the University of Brighton: “To what extent is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) achieving its aim of promoting sustainable development?  Is Neighbourhood Planning under the Localism Act 2011 contributing to this objective?” (April 2014).

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.