Ray Dawe: Neighbourhood plans would be a strong weapon

Looking at all the recent newsreel coverage of the death of Baroness Thatcher, one becomes acutely aware how much the world has changed.

Those old newsreels portray a Britain that was a very different place. It was, in 1979, still a time when political parties thought that building a lot more houses was a clear vote winner. Is this the case today? Given that most of the time, whenever a new housing development is proposed, an action or protest group is immediately formed to oppose it, the answer appears to be “no”!

If you sit in Government all the evidence points to a housing shortage. Margaret Thatcher saw this country as a place where everyone should be able to own their own home, yet today the average age of a first time buyer is 7 years older than when she was in office and private rents have risen by 37 per cent in the past five years. We are all living longer, and more people divorce and live apart, so if we don’t build any new homes, where do we think our children and grandchildren are going to live?

This situation comes at a time when the Government is for the first time attempting to involve local people in house building choices. However, the transition period is too short and takes no proper account of over 6000 existing planning permissions in the District, so we continue to lobby the Government and our local MPs about this.

Centrally imposed targets for the number of houses to be built in each area have just been abolished and the Government now wants councils to consider population growth, jobs and economic activity and come up with their own evidence-based figures for the number of homes needed. At Horsham District Council we decided to put the matter to an independent outside organisation and it came up with a range of figures for the number of houses needed, which though lower than the old Government dictated ones, are not so hugely different.

So where do these additional homes go? Well, as I have said, virtually everywhere house building is proposed, an action group quickly appears giving reasons why they feel the houses should not be near them! Reasons given are many but usually focus on what is perceived as strain on the existing infrastructure. Even when affordable housing is suggested this often does not meet local approval.

There is now a big push now to involve communities in planning for new homes – asking single parish or neighbourhood councils or a group of them to produce Neighbourhood plans, and the Government is offering funding to help this process. These Plans effectively ask local communities to look at what housing might be needed over a 20 year period in their areas, in number, type, design and location, while at the same time a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) allows local authorities to set charges which developers must pay when bringing forward new development, in order to contribute to new or enhanced services and infrastructure. 

A big new plus is that any community putting forward an agreed Plan would gain direct control over a good part of the CIL monies (25%) towards schemes that it feels could help improve and update local infrastructure or bring improvements the community wants. While a Neighbourhood Plan doesn’t just allow a community to refuse all development and there is a need to conform to an overall District Council strategy, if used properly it could become a powerful tool in shaping the development of a town or village over a period of years.

Equally important, once adopted by a community, a Neighbourhood Plan would be a very strong weapon to resist the type of ad hoc planning applications that are currently popping up everywhere, which the District Council planning committee refuses, only to lose at an expensive appeal. So this is why HDC has written to all parish and neighbourhood councils asking them to actively participate. Some have already shown a willingness to join in and I hope the others will quickly choose to follow.