Thank you to everyone who has taken part in our public consultation surveys over the past two years and for giving us your views. Public engagement is vital – our first survey told us what the key issues are and our recent aspirations survey showed that a wide range of stakeholders strongly support our aspirations to draft policies and recommendations to tackle these key issues. They also made many suggestions as to how these can be improved and better targeted.
However, in reading many of these responses it is clear that there is some misunderstanding as to what the forum can and cannot do and what the plan we are producing will deliver for Soho. We hope these FAQs will help make things clearer.
What is the Soho Neighbourhood Forum?
It is a forum of those people who live or work within the area defined as the Soho Neighbourhood Area (SNA) who have applied to become members of the forum. Membership is free but is only open to those who can show that they live or work in the SNA. At the inaugural meeting in July 2015 the members elected a Forum Steering Group (FSG) of 16 members to guide and represent the forum. It is made up of 8 representatives of residents and 8 representatives of businesses. It is a voluntary association operating under a constitution approved by Westminster City Council (WCC) who designated the neighbourhood area and the forum itself. The forum was designated a business neighbourhood forum which means that we must consult businesses as well as residents and get the consent of both groups to the final plan when put to referendum.
Why was it set up and what can it deliver for Soho?
The Localism Act 2011 gave powers for local communities to set up forums and to produce a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) which gives expression to their vision and aspirations for their area. The plan has to be in general conformity with the national planning policy framework (NPPF), the Mayor’s London Plan and Westminster City Development Plan. These plans set the strategic direction for planning in Soho but our plan can contain policies, which respond to Soho’s particular local needs and issues. The plan will have statutory (legal) force once it has passed all its processes and all future planning applications must comply with its policies. However, the elected councillors of Westminster sitting on its planning committee are the ones who take the actual decisions on planning applications and they have some discretion to decide what to take into account when making an individual planning decision.
What is The Localism Act (2011)
In 2011, The Localism Act was passed, designed to devolve more powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities greater control over local decisions like housing and planning. The Act is designed to de-centralise some decision-making. The Act gives local communities the opportunity to set up Forums (consisting of local representatives of the area) to produce a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) which empowers local people to see their vision and aspirations for their area realised.
What powers does the Forum have?
The only power is to draw up, consult on and put forward a neighbourhood plan. Once the plan is adopted WCC can consult the forum for its views about planning applications within the area and also agree how a proportion of the Community Infrastructure Levy paid in the area is actually spent.
What resources does it have?
It has very few resources. There is a total of £14,400 in government grant money that can be applied for during the whole process no matter how long it takes. In addition, central government provides limited funding for consultants to help advise a forum. Some local individuals and businesses have also contributed donations. We only have enough funds to employ a coordinator working approximately one day a week.
What is neighbourhood planning?
It is a process, which asks local residents, businesses and people working in those businesses what they think the key issues are for their area and to put forward a plan with policies and recommendations, which they believe, improve land use planning in that area. A draft plan will have to be commented on by WCC and then sent to an independently appointed examiner to check that it is both technically correct and in general conformity with the higher strategic plans. It will then be put to referendums of residents and businesses for their approval.
Why does the process keep referring to policies and recommendations?
Policies are the words which have statutory force and anyone applying for planning permission after the plan is adopted must comply with these policies. Such policies are also called land use policies because they control the use of land, buildings and the types of activity within them.
Recommendations are just that, recommendations to third parties such as the council or Transport for London urging them to take action on issues which the neighbourhood planning process has shown to be important to the local community and form part of its vision for the area.
Why can’t the forum/plan stop development?
Any person or company can buy, own or occupy land and buildings and make an application to the local authority (for Soho it is Westminster City Council) to change their use or to substantially refurbish or redevelop them. The forum has no powers to intervene in the process.
Why can’t the forum control rents?
Nothing in the legislation setting up neighbourhood forums gives them any power to control the rent that an owner or landlord charges a tenant to occupy a particular premises.
Why can’t the forum stop the loss of individual businesses?
It is for the individual/s or company running a business to decide if they wish to stop trading. This can be for many reasons such a change in personal health, changed trading patterns, declining profitability or a substantial increase in costs (including periodic rent and rates increases) but the forum has no power to intervene in this process
Why can’t the forum pedestrianise Soho?
The streets must remain accessible to ambulances and fire engines at a minimum. In addition, businesses and homes need deliveries and waste has to be collected regularly. What the forum can do is recommend that streets are managed differently. For example, Carnaby Street and Kingly Street are open for deliveries in the morning then are closed to vehicles in the afternoon and early evening and reopen again in the late evening for cleansing and waste removal.
What is the relationship with WCC?
It is for the forum to come up with its vision and proposals for Soho quite independently. The council has a duty to help and support the forum but has very limited resources to do so. It will also formally comment on the draft plan and may recommend some modifications. In addition, it will conduct the referendums of Soho residents and businesses to check there is majority support from the community to adopt the plan.
Will the plan have any impact?
The land use planning policies from the date the plan is adopted will bring some change as all new planning applications will normally be decided in accordance with the policies in it. The overall NP document will also be an expression of the community’s vision for the area and along with the policies there will be recommendations to others for actions and projects which will help achieve that vision. The forum could decide to go on to lobby for the recommendations it has put forward to be implemented and to oppose proposals which are not in accordance with the plan.
How does the plan relate to Crossrail (Elizabeth Line)?
There is no relationship with Crossrail which is under the control of central government and the GLA.