I attended a Westminster Briefing event in London today, in an attempt to get a better handle on how to make the new system work at the district council level.
There was a very clear feeling amongst those attending, that the new system of neighbourhood planning, if it was to become a success, would need a significant amount of resource putting in. There was also a feeling that the minister was being extremely optimistic in his belief that neighbourhood planning would bring about any real increase in the number of houses delivered.
Most people also questioned how the New Homes Bonus (NHB), having been created by taking money away from councils in the first place, could be seen as an incentive to councils and communities to build more houses based on increased benefits to the community, as it was likely that most councils would simply use it to plug the funding gap that was now being imposed by government – the lord giveth and the lord taketh away as they say, except in the case of NHB, it’s the other way around – the gov takes it and then gives it back, if you do their bidding!
I asked Bob Neill the minister, who spoke at today’s event, how councils would be able to identify how much extra cash they had been given in the grant settlement, to help communities produce their plans, when councils didn’t know how many communities might want to produce a plan in the first place? I think he said they were working on it and that I should ask the question as part of the consultation currently going on!
All a bit disappointing really, as I think neighbourhood and community plans could be a very good thing for people to get involved in producing. Not only would it give them a much greater stake in the way their local area is to be developed, it would also help to get people involved in the planning process in a much more positive and long-term way than they do currently.
Unfortunately, unless the local planning authority has the right level of expertise and resource, it is likely that they are either going to avoid encouraging communities to produce plans, or worse still, actually frustrate the ambitions of those that want to produce a plan, by offering only the very minimum of assistance.
This is a great opportunity for us to show some real leadership and encouragement to our communities, but only if we have the right level of resources to do it well.