THE Coalition Government embarked on a major reform of the planning system for house building with the introduction of ‘localism’ as the main plank of the measures.
Change was needed because centralised housing target numbers, lack of locally based planning and copious amounts of ‘ministerial planning guidance’ all conspired to diminish the role of elected councillors in shaping our environments.
Reform was also required to stimulate the construction of new homes. Too many families are still unable to find suitable houses and house prices are well beyond acceptable affordability criteria in many areas. The challenge is to build new houses to meet the market requirements but without damaging existing communities.
Local authorities now have several increased responsibilities and powers. The most important of these is to produce a local plan for development. This plan should calibrate housing needs, demonstrate suitable capacity to meet those needs and, above all, identify agreed places for new houses to be built.
Too few local authorities had plans back in 2010. In fact, only 15% of all planning authorities had a working plan but, because of the pressure from the reforms, over 50% of authorities now have a plan. Sadly, Stroud District Council did have a plan in 2010 but, since 2011, has been working on a new one. The failure to have a new plan already in place has left our communities vulnerable to speculative development.
Housing developers are exploiting situations where there is no adopted local plan because it removes constraints for proposals which otherwise would have been in place. In blunt terms, the Stroud Valleys and Vale need a plan urgently. One has been submitted for consideration and, if approved, should be operational by next year. In the meantime, development applications could, ultimately, be decided on appeal with reference to the ‘emerging plan’.
Neighbourhood planning is another tool available to protect local communities from unwanted and inappropriate developments. Such plans have statutory force, and provide parish and towns councils with enhanced planning powers. Neighbourhood plans are a logical part of localism and, increasingly, will be the instrument for communities to take control.