If you’re a local authority planner, there is something inevitable about the prospects of having to navigate the examination of a neighbourhood plan sooner rather than later, if you have not done so already. There are over 2,000 communities - in neighbourhood planning termed as ‘qualifying bodies’ - actively engaged in progressing plans, with more than 450 neighbourhood plans having been examined to date.
It is at examination stage where time invested in advising and co-operating with the qualifying body on the neighbourhood plan’s preparation will reap rewards. Whilst this can be quite demanding on local authority resources, experience points to effective engagement being a key contributor to a successful examination. Similarly, ensuring an independent ‘health check’ has been undertaken on a draft plan prior to submission to the local authority will more than prove its worth.
When the qualifying body submits its draft neighbourhood plan, the local authority must ensure that the procedural requirements have been met, including the provision of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) screening opinion (and if needed, SEA report), usually produced with the local authority’s assistance. Whilst the local authority effectively takes over responsibility for the progression of the plan from this submission stage onwards, it is essential to bear in mind that the qualifying body will still wish to retain a strong sense of ownership.
Providing the procedural requirements are met, the local authority is required to invite representations on the draft plan for a minimum of 6 weeks. As part of this exercise it is general practice for the local authority to produce a representation also, in order to communicate its view on the draft plan to the examiner. Whilst there is no legal requirement for the representations to be placed on the local authority’s website, it is advisable in the interests of transparency to do so, alongside all other documentation that relates to the examination.
The appointment of the examiner can only be made with the consent of the qualifying body. The expectation is that the local authority will obtain the CVs of prospective examiners and share these with the qualifying body. Those involved in agreeing the examiner appointment may also find it helpful to look at examples of previous neighbourhood plan reports produced by the examiner candidates.
Once the local authority makes the appointment, it is important to provide the examiner with the name and contact details of the lead local authority officer responsible for the plan, as well as a nominated contact in the qualifying body. It is also good practice for the local authority officer to copy the named qualifying body representative in on all examination correspondence (aside from contractual issues).
Preliminary process meetings are not usually held but the examiner will be open to answering in writing any procedural questions arising from parties seeking clarification.
There is a reasonable expectation that the examiner will communicate a provisional view on whether a hearing is required at an early stage of the examination. Unlike local plans, there is no right to be heard so the vast majority of neighbourhood plan examinations will not involve a hearing.
The examiner will wish to undertake a visit to the neighbourhood plan area. Such visits are generally unaccompanied but may be accompanied, for example if access to a particular site is limited. It is very helpful if the local authority can advise the examiner whether any sites are likely to be difficult to view, without access to the land.
Having considered the plan documents, representations and other evidence the examiner may require the clarification of specific points, usually dealt with through exchange of correspondence. This is not an opportunity to submit new evidence. Two weeks will generally be provided to submit a response.
The length of the examination will be dependent on the scale and nature of the neighbourhood plan and the number and significance of the representations received. The examination is undertaken only to assess whether a draft neighbourhood plan meets the narrowly focused basic conditions and other statutory requirements. There is no consideration of ‘soundness’ of the neighbourhood plan.
Examinations typically take between 5 to 10 days of examiner time but in terms of overall duration these days may be spread over several weeks. To ensure the examination is progressing, local authorities should expect regular updates from the examiner on the examination timetable.
In terms of the examiner’s report, a period of 1- 2 weeks is generally provided for the local authority and qualifying body to comment on factual matters in the report: the questioning of the examiner’s planning judgment and recommendations lie outside the remit of this ‘fact check’ stage. It is very helpful if the local authority is able to co-ordinate collation of its comments with those of the qualifying body into a single response to the examiner.
When the examiner issues the final report, it should be published on the local authority’s website. The local authority must then decide what action to take in response to the examiner’s recommendations and determine whether or not the neighbourhood plan should proceed to referendum, and whether this will be with or without modifications.
Lee Armitage is director of consultants Intelligent Plans and Examinations (IPE)