In Civic Voice’s response to the Planning White Paper, we said: “We would like to further explore how civic societies could have a more formal role in the new system to help deepen meaningful engagement with the wider community in helping to shape their local area.
Our Director, Ian Harvey shares some personal thoughts on how he sees the future for civic societies.
Could a formal voice for civic societies be the answer?
The planning system as we know it, is changing. Whether it’s new style Local Plans, Zones, Design Codes, or successive widening of Permitted Development Rights and changes of use on High Streets, change is coming. But how will communities fit into this new system?
Regular followers of Civic Voice will recall that the Government published its Planning White Paper in August 2020, promising to radically reform the current planning system to make it a ‘significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system’. The Prime Minister’s ambition in the foreword to the paper is for a system that also ‘gives you a greater say over what gets built in your community’. A bold claim. So, how might that work in practice?
Well the Planning White Paper gives us some clues as to Government thinking and what might be coming down the tracks in a new Planning Bill later this year – A streamlined Local Plan process (max 30 months), with two opportunities for public consultation:
- Stage 1 [6 months] – Call for sites/areas under the three categories with ‘best in class’ public engagement.
- Stage 2 [12 months] – Local authority prepares its Local Plan.
- Stage 3 [6 weeks] – Local authority submits the plan for examination and publicises the plan for consultation with ‘best in class’ engagement. Responses will have a word limit and those seeking changes must explain how the plan should be changed and why.
- Stage 4 [9 months] – Planning inspector examines the plan against the sustainable development test and makes binding changes where necessary. All those that submitted comments on the plan would have a ‘right to be heard’.
- Stage 5 [6 weeks] – Local plan map, key and text are finalised and adopted.
Make no mistake, whilst we support making the Local Plan process shorter and more accessible to communities, this timetable is, to put it mildly, challenging. Some might say, impossible.
But if that’s what’s coming, where do civic societies or other organised community groups fit. Do we have a responsibility to our communities to get a formal voice – to ensure someone participates in the process?
In a survey of our members, conducted towards the end of the Planning White Paper consultation period, 79% stated that they believed community groups would have less influence in the system; 77% thought it would be a less accessible planning system to engage with and 86% thought the proposals to introduce zoning and reduce the right to respond on individual planning application would make it a less less democratic system.
We know that the best civic societies play a vital role in scrutinising plans and planning applications, acting as a ‘critical friend’ to local planning authorities, providing advice on heritage, design and raising awareness of key development proposals amongst the wider public. They care about where they live and want the best for their areas.
In this new system, the key role of civic societies needs to be acknowledged and given sufficient weight in the system. Particularly, if there are only going to be two limited opportunities for public consultation on Local Plans. NB Civic Voice opposed this specific proposal – see question 12 of our full response to the Planning White Paper here.
This is even more important as the Local Plan will be the place where the ‘big stuff’ will be decided. If the Government’s plans go ahead, in the new system, there will be no more planning applications for civic societies to comment on in Growth Areas or potentially Renewal Areas and there may be far fewer in Conservation Areas too, with the recent permitted development rights changes. So the Local Plan will be the main place to get involved to help shape your local area.
If the Government’s ambition really is for ‘world class civic engagement’ surely civic societies must have a formal voice in this process? Formal status would recognise the time, effort and expertise and added value civic societies could bring to the process and give ‘teeth’ to their considered representations. Could a formal voice for civic societies in developing Local Plans, specifically at Stage 1 and Stage 3 be something we call for in the Planning Bill? Could this be part of the answer to the Government’s ambitions for ‘best in class engagement’?
Ahead of meetings with MPs about the APPG for Civic Societies, I believe that the number one priority for Civic Voice and the APPG should be to establish Civic Voice members with a formal voice in the new planning system.
Of course, a formal voice in the system, would bring change and responsibilities on both sides, civic societies and local planning authorities, but in a wholescale review of the planning system, our role as a civic society is likely to change anyway. We know that 77% of civic societies prioritise responding to individual planning applications, but with the options set out in the White Paper, that is inevitably going to change. What will you do instead?
The reason I wrote the blog is just to have a discussion about our future, because I think we are changing as a movement, without discussing it. What I do know , is that effective change doesn’t just happen by chance, and any plan you make has to be right for your organization. I also know we need to do better.
Maybe now is the time to review the purpose and role of civic societies?
What do you think to Ian’s suggestion? Should we work with the APPG for Civic Societies to campaign for formal voice at Stage 1 and Stage 3 of the Local Plan process in the new planning system?
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