Local authorities have a key role in neighbourhood planning to advise and assist their communities in the production of neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood development orders. Different authorities are taking different approaches to this role and a very wide range of support is being offered. The degree of support offered by local authorities is often in line with the local perspective of the role of neighbourhood plans, and the level of resources the local authority considers should be applied to support communities in their role.
Neighbourhood plans can be resource intensive and take time to produce. The roles of the local authority and the forum or parish producing the plan are intertwined as each has its own tasks to undertake to see the plan through production.
There is a lot of discretion in the local authority role in neighbourhood planning. With it being a new and evolving part of plan making there is considerable opportunity for misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations of both the local authority and the parish or neighbourhood forum.
To help manage the process, local authorities are increasingly looking to set out their offers of support in writing, entering into signed agreements with their communities. These are known under a number of different names and include 'memorandum of understanding', 'service level agreement' and 'service offer'.
- Cornwall Council
- High Peak Borough Council
- Herefordshire Council
- Bristol City Council
- Leeds City Council
The Portfolio Holder for Localism at Cornwall Council was firm when the neighbourhood planning legislation came into place that they should be clear about what the local authority could and could not offer. The authority has an active approach to the devolution of services and community assets and considers neighbourhood plans to be an umbrella for this activity. They already had a lot of activity in parish plans and Village Design Statements, and have a useful Community Network to organise local authority resources to clusters of parishes. Cornwall Council is aiming to have written agreements with the parishes with respect to the use of financial resources.
At High Peak Borough Council one of the reasons for needing an agreement is the complexity of arrangements for one of their neighbourhood plans. The Chapel–en-Le-Frith neighbourhood plan also covers part of the Peak District National Park. High Peak Borough Council is leading the process of engagement with the parish. The Chapel–en–le-Frith Parish Council felt it would be preferable if a group independent of the Council led the Neighbourhood Plan but with some Council input. A local group was enthusiastic to undertake the work and became known as 'Chapel Vision'. Chapel Vision is not a formal sub group or working group of the Parish Council and so needs a Memorandum of Understanding as a footing to prepare the neighbourhood planning document. The parish remains the qualifying body and responsible for ensuring the plan represents the views of the community. Therefore a Memorandum of Understanding between the Borough Council, Parish Council and Chapel Vision is currently in place.
Herefordshire Council sees the use of a 'Service Level Agreement' as an important tool for the management of their support to communities. It makes it clear to the parishes what the local authority will do to support them. It also enables the local authority to organise its support and with 134 Parish Councils in the area there is a real need to manage the risk of having overwhelming demands on officers time.
Bristol City Council aspires to sign memorandum of understanding with their Neighbourhood Forum. They will clarify the position between the forum and a range of services in the Council, expressing corporate sign up to the support.
Leeds City Council has designated 14 neighbourhood areas and has another 4 in the pipeline. Officers are finding that it is very important to be clear with communities about the roles and support available, as members of forum have different capacities and levels of understanding. It is also not always clear to elected members what their role is and how they engaged in the process.
Officers are drafting service level agreements for all neighbourhood areas at present and expect to use this for all groups. In advance of these agreements a draft 'support package' for the prospective Aireborough Neighbourhood Forum has given the group some comfort that they will receive support from the City Council after designation.
Harborough District Council considers that some situations will benefit from a written agreement about roles of parties engaged in neighbourhood planning whilst others are more straightforward and will not need one. They have an agreement with Lubenham Parish Council because their Neighbourhood Plan is to include a strategic development area and it resolves any confusion about the roles of the respective plans.