Although it didn’t grab as many headlines, the Localism Act is no less important than the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The NPPF will form new planning guidance; the Localism Act sets out the legal framework and as such it represents significant change to the law.
The Government says this ‘will trigger the biggest transfer of power in a generation’ as it attempts to shift power from central government to Local Authorities and neighbourhoods.
The Localism Bill worked its way through Parliament before receiving Royal Assent on November 15th and we have been working hard over the last year to ensure the Trust’s messages around woods and trees were listened to during the Act’s preparation. Unlike the draft NPPF – which reduced over 1,000 pages of planning guidance into just under 60 – the Localism Act has no claims to brevity, covering approximately 40 different policy areas throughout its 497 pages.
The Localism Act will of course bring about many changes; as ever our focus is on those which we think will be the most significant for woods and trees. But of course only time will tell!
Here are our edited highlights:
Abolition of the Regional Strategies
The Localism Act will allow the Government to fulfil a longstanding promise to revoke Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs). However, following a legal challenge by the housebuilding company CALA Homes this cannot take place until a twelve week consultation on each of the eight Strategic Environmental Assessments (one for each RSS outside London) has been completed. The Woodland Trust will be responding to these consultations, as we’re concerned that the loss of the RSSs will erode protection for the environment through the loss of strategic policies and evidence.
Duty to Cooperate
The Act introduces a requirement for all Local Authorities and other public bodies to work together on planning sustainable development in lieu of regional planning policies and bodies. This duty ensures that ‘serious consideration’ will be given to working together on joint plans where there is a need for it. We would have liked to have seen something stronger than ‘serious consideration’ but this is a step in the right direction.
The Act will strengthen a Local Planning Authority (LPA)’s abilities to deal with deliberately concealed unauthorised development. Of particular note is a new ‘Power to decline to determine retrospective application’. In the past some developers carried out unauthorised development safe in the knowledge that the LPA would be likely to grant them retrospective planning permission. This new power should make developers think twice about taking that chance – good news for woods and trees!
Previously Councillors could not express their opinions about a development and then vote for or against it at the planning committee’s determination meeting. These rules have now been clarified, enabling Councillors to express their opinions on issues of local importance without the fear of legal challenge. This is very important, especially when it comes to such sensitive and emotive issues like development affecting ancient woodland.
The Act introduces a right for Parish Councils and Neighbourhood Forums to draw up ‘Neighbourhood Plans’. Although the concept of a Parish Plan is nothing new, neighbourhood plans will be statutory documents and will form part of the Local Plan for an area. These can’t limit the amount of development in your neighbourhood. They can however provide guidance though on the location of development and its design and layout.
We think neighbourhood plans are a really exciting opportunity for people to plan for more trees and woods locally, and to recognise the value of their existing trees and woodland. We are putting together some guidance to help you ensure woods and trees can play a key part in your local neighbourhood plan – watch this space…
Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Adviser