Exeter City Council has rejected calls for greater community involvement in planning policy-making and application decisions, defending its existing approach despite an eight week consultation on community involvement in planning matters producing just seventeen responses.
The consultation on the council’s new Statement of Community Involvement, a statutory document which sets out how it will involve communities, businesses and others in the preparation of planning policies as well as determining individual planning applications, took place between September and November last year.
Several organisations simply responded to clarify their status as consultees without commenting on the document itself, while others submitted responses which were not relevant.
Exeter Civic Society, Exeter Green Party and the Progressive Group of councillors on Exeter City Council submitted the most substantial consultation responses, between them comprising nearly two thirds of total submissions.
Each called for greater commitment to community involvement in planning decisions, describing the council’s approach as a “wholly inadequate offering” in the context of the challenges that Exeter faces and saying it should instead be “going beyond consultation to enable proper community engagement”.
The council responded by saying its approach complied with the minimum standards set out in the legislation, adding that it was “flexible” and allowed for “a range of approaches” which would be “explored further as we move forward”.
It cited its “limited resources” and “the need to make progress” on the local plan as reasons for not committing to greater community involvement, and made no changes in response to nearly three-quarters of the issues raised by the three.
It also made no changes in response to half the issues raised by the other respondents.
Despite the very low consultation response rate, several Labour councillors expressed satisfaction with the outcome at last week’s council executive meeting.
Martin Pearce said: “Lots of comments have come forward but very few of them actually require changes, which says to me that we’re already doing what the community wants us to do and not just ticking all the boxes”.
Council leader Phil Bialyk added that he is “more than satisfied with how we consult in this city”.
Exeter Civic Society, Exeter Green Party and the Progressive Group also all criticised the council for not being proactive in promoting neighbourhood planning, which enables local groups to create planning policy which becomes part of the wider development plan framework.
An £18,000 government grant and comprehensive free technical support is on offer to community groups that want to create neighbourhood plans.
Such plans are enabling communities around the country to prevent new housing being used as second homes or holiday lets and to block construction of Purpose Built Student Accommodation and conversion of existing residential housing stock to shared student accommodation.
The civic society pointed out that the council had not updated its neighbourhood planning protocol since 2012 and had not promoted government guidance or key neighbourhood planning resources on its website.
At last week’s executive meeting Liberal Democrat councillor Kevin Mitchell urged the council to do more to promote neighbourhood planning in Exeter and Conservative councillor Anne Jobson said the council’s Statement of Community Involvement should make clear funding is available to enable neighbourhood planning groups.
Council leader Phil Bialyk said there was no need to do more than supply links to online resources via its website, which the council has now done.
However the government recently made clear that it intends to expand the role of neighbourhood planning groups in making planning policy.
It confirmed earlier this month that the planning system reforms it wants to retain from the 2020 planning white paper will be included in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
Local authority area-wide design codes will be required to act as frameworks for detailed design codes which can be prepared for specific areas by neighbourhood planning groups.
Design codes can be used to set stringent standards, to which developers must adhere in order to get planning permission, in much greater detail than planning policy documents.
They can cover environmental and energy efficiency standards, walking and cycling infrastructure specifications, public realm requirements and usage considerations such as tenure mix among many other development delivery details.
The government also intends to introduce a more accessible local planning tool called a “neighbourhood priorities statement” to enable communities to directly influence planning policy.
It will help communities to identify priorities and preferences for their areas and provide a basis on which they can create full neighbourhood plans.
The new neighbourhood planning provisions, which will become part of the city’s planning policy framework, are expected to come into force before the new Exeter Local Plan is adopted.
They will offer communities greater involvement and enhanced powers in planning policy-making and application decisions whether the council promotes them or not.