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First guidance for neighbourhood plan examiners under development

Out-Law News | 03 Apr 2017 | 3:26 pm | 2 min. read

The first guidance for neighbourhood plan examiners is currently under development, it has emerged.

Speaking at industry event the National Planning Summit, independent examiner Ann Skippers said that she was developing the guidance as part of a Neighbourhood Plan Independent Examiner Referral Service (NPIERS) working party. The guidance, which was aimed at improving consistency, will hopefully be ready by the autumn, according to Planning Resource (registration required).

Planning law expert Ben Mansell of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that examiners would "welcome" the provision of guidance, and "may wonder why it has not been released already".

"By law, examiners must consider three criteria: whether it meets the 'basic conditions'; if it complies with sections 38A and 38B of the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act; and whether the area for any referendum should extend beyond the land to which the draft plan relates," he said. "Beyond these criteria, and some recent cases which consider the scope of the neighbourhood plan powers, examiners must use their experience and judgement when making a recommendation in their report to the local planning authority."

"Inevitably, this has led to differences in approach and some inconsistencies. The guidance should provide overdue advice to ensure neighbourhood plans adhere to the same principles. This is particularly important given the increasing number of neighbourhood plan applications coming forward," he said.

Mansell said recently that he expected to see an increasing number of neighbourhood plans failing the independent examination stage in the coming year, partly because of the increased number coming forward but also because of higher levels of scrutiny during examination. Those that do proceed to referendum could face additional legal challenges, he said.

Neighbourhood planning was introduced by the 2011 Localism Act as a means of giving local people more of a say in planning decisions affecting their local communities. There were over 230 such plans in force across England as of the end of last year, with many more in preparation.

A Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which is currently before parliament, would require planning decision-takers to have regard to neighbourhood plans that have passed examination when deciding planning applications. If passed in its current form, neighbourhood plans will also become part of the development plan for an area as soon as they have been approved by local people and businesses in a referendum, without having to be brought into legal force officially by the relevant local planning authority.

NPIERS is an industry body which is managed and administered by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), with support from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Members also include the Planning Officers Society, the Royal Town Planning Institute and Action with Communities in Rural England.

Speaking at the National Planning Summit, Skippers said she had been part of a group commissioned by the DCLG to review some of the neighbourhood plans that have passed examination to date. She said there had been "some differences in approach", which was to be expected given the lack of available guidance, according to Planning Resource.

However, Skippers added that the overall level of scrutiny was "high".