In a move which has made me feel decidedly un-festive, yesterday, in the House of Commons, Gavin Barwell issued a new written ministerial statement on neighbourhood planning.

The statement re-opens the question of when a made neighbourhood plan is to be considered out-of-date in circumstances where the Local Authority in question does not have a 5-Year Housing Land Supply and the operation of paragraph 49 of the NPPF renders them out of date. 

Until now, the answer, which the Courts have considered on a number of occasions, has been as follows:

  • When a neighbourhood plan was made it became part of the Local Plan;
  • If that Local Plan was 'out of date', through the operation of paragraph 49, then the neighbourhood plan was also 'out of date' and could only be awarded limited weight.

Gavin Barwell's  written ministerial statement is purporting to alter this position, albeit without actually going to the effort of amending the NPPF itself, or, indeed, consulting on the proposed change in policy. 

According to his statement, the approach should now be as follows:

"relevant policies for the supply of housing in a neighbourhood plan, that is part of the development plan, should not be deemed to be ‘out-of-date’ under paragraph 49 of the National Planning Policy Framework where all of the following circumstances arise at the time the decision is made:

  • This written ministerial statement is less than 2 years old, or the neighbourhood plan has been part of the development plan for 2 years or less;
  • the neighbourhood plan allocates sites for housing; and
  • the local planning authority can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites"

Unfortunately, the new policy, and  how it has been introduced, raises more questions than it resolves.

A few questions which leap immediately to mind are as follows:

  • We are directed to read the WMS alongside paragraph 49 of the NPPF, however the two policies directly contradict each other and will continue to do so until the NPPF is updated. Which should take priority?
  • How is a local authority with almost 100% neighbourhood plan coverage ever going to move from having a three year housing land supply to having a five year housing land supply, if it can't grant consents on sites that conflict with a recent neighbourhood plan?
  • Is the Written Ministerial Statement a blanket policy or are we to take the approach suggested by the Courts in relation to the small sites exemption and treat it as being capable of being over-ridden? If the latter, in what circumstances can local authorities depart from it?

I strongly suspect that following this announcement, we will be seeing yet another up-tick in Neighbourhood Planning cases in the High Court in 2017.... to which I can only say, BAH! HUMBUG!