Sure – you remember; the Community Right to Build? The flagship idea of the early days of the Localism agenda, and now law as part of the Localism Act. In the immediate aftermath of its announcement back in the late summer of 2010, its critics were quick to write it off as a crude headline-grabber. How could 90% of any community ever be persuaded to vote for anything in a referendum?
But with this threshold of support reduced to 75%, and then a quite reasonable-sounding 50%, the Community Right to Build continued to be the subject of some discussion in the press and on-line during the remainder of 2010 and into 2011. However, when the Localism Bill was finally published it was clear that the Community Right to Build was to be a little cousin of something called ‘Neighbourhood Planning’, a mechanism for making bottom-up community-led spatial planning a formal part of the planning system. The Government found some money to kick-start some new-style Neighbourhood Plans – a pot of £50m to be spread across the Neighbourhood Planning ‘Vanguards’ projects, at the rate of £20k per project. Gradually, over the middle months of the year, my ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ Google-alert returned – and still returns – a steady stream of results, whereas ‘Community Right to Build’ slowed to a trickle and then dried up completely.
This seems a pity. When first announced, Neighbourhood Planning seemed to promised a devolution of planning powers to a truly local level, but it quickly became clear that a Neighbourhood Plan would be subordinate to the general thrust of any local plan in force, particularly in respect of the broad locations and amount of growth. A Neighbourhood Plan could propose more new homes, for instance, than the district-level Local Plan or Local Development Framework, but not fewer. Neighbourhood Plans are likely to be more detailed than the Area Action Plans that the district authority might choose to instigate following an allocation of land for significant amounts of development, but they will cover similar issues, and will be based on similar assumptions about the amount of growth that a neighbourhood must accept. The Community Right to Build, on the other hand, offers something genuinely exciting. Although likely to operate at a much smaller scale (a village perhaps, rather than a market-town or urban neighbourhood) it will be capable of creating a permission to build where it would otherwise not be forthcoming – outside a village’s Development Boundary for instance. And unlike a Neighbourhood plan, it is binding on the Local Authority.
So why hasn’t the Community Right to Build captured punters’ attention? Well in its own publicity about the CRTB, the Government has positioned it primarily in the context of affordable rural housing. But as I have written previously, there are already well established procedures – the ‘rural exception’ policies in most local plans – for delivering affordable homes adjacent to villages. If a defined local housing need can be identified, planning permission should generally be forthcoming, even if the land is outside a Development Boundary.
But the CRTB is not limited to affordable housing; other types of development are explicitly allowed, provided the ‘benefits’ of such development accrue to the local community. In other words, a CRTB project could involve building houses for sale at a profit to generate funds for a community project – a new village hall, buying out and subsidising a pub or shop, etc. It has always seemed to me that this is where the real potential of the CRTB lies; I wrote about it in some detail back in November 2010, and the CLG have confirmed (here) that I have understood this correctly. Which makes it all the more surprising that they’ve never really stressed this angle.
So is the Community Right to Build dead and buried? Well, perhaps not. There has been one noteworthy ‘blip’ on my CRTB Google-alert in the last couple of weeks – a mention of the almost-forgotten policy in a letter to the Guardian, in response to an article in the paper about Neighbourhood Planning, which itself had made no reference of the Community Right to Build.
The letter’s author? None other than Grant Shapps!