As the Localism Bill makes its final steps through the parliamentary process attention is now turning to how the theory will work in practice.
The bill includes a variety of measures to decentralise power and give local people a greater say over what happens in their area.
A key tenet of this is an overhaul of the planning system. The intention is to simplify the planning process, making it more accessible and ultimately giving local communities more control over development. The theory behind localism is that by involving local communities early in the planning process you will achieve their buy-in to development.
One of the ways to achieve this greater community involvement is the introduction of statutory pre-application consultation for applications above a certain threshold. What will statutory pre-application consultation mean?
Most developers of waste infrastructure already undertake consultation and you would be hard-placed to find a consented scheme which hadn’t involved a certain degree of community engagement. However, when the Localism Bill comes into force this consultation will become a material consideration at planning committee and planning appeal. There will also be the risk of perceived inadequate consultation becoming the subject of a judicial review.
This means that developers will need to de-risk consultation. While the requirements for consultation will be set out in secondary legislation, the Government has stated this will be ‘light touch’ and not prescriptive. The greatest steer on what is required will come from the local planning authority, although there is no obligation for authorities to produce formal guidance. Instead existing local authority Statement of Community Involvements (SCIs) will be the most useful place to look, with each of these varying significantly from authority to authority.
Developers will need to ensure that all consultation is recorded effectively and clearly show how the feedback received influenced the proposals. Every aspect of consultation, including the methodology and communication materials, must stand up to scrutiny. Agreeing the consultation methodology at the very start of the process with the local planning authority will be key and will help to minimise the risk of later challenge.
A key aspect of the Government’s approach to statutory pre-application consultation is the requirement for developers to ‘collaborate on design’. For waste infrastructure projects this can be hard to achieve, given the technical nature of the proposals, which has led to criticism in the past that local communities are being presented with a fait accompli.
It is important for developers to be very clear up front what they are actually consulting on and what aspects of the scheme are fixed. Going further than this, we may start to see more multi-stage consultation, where the initial phase happens much earlier at the design conception stage.
At a recent event hosted by PPS Group and legal firm Lawrence Graham, Communities minister Bob Neill spoke about how the Localism Bill would move local communities from ‘resistance’ to ‘collaboration’ on development issues. He argued that the provisions in the Bill to provide financial incentives for communities affected by development would overcome any ‘nimbyism’.
In addition to the measures which will enable Community Infrastructure Levy to be targeted to the areas affected by development, the government is planning to introduce a bill by the end of the year to enable business rates to be retained by local authorities, rather than the cash going to the Treasury to be re-distributed among all councils.
Critics of localism argue that these measures will not be enough to overcome local resistance to unpopular development and, in reality, little will change in practice. What is definite is that developers will need to continue to innovate and try new, less tired methods of consultation and work harder to uncover and mobilise support for a project to demonstrate community buy-in.
Rebecca Eatwell is a director at specialist communications consultancy PPS Group