The meeting was called by Hungerford Town Council (HTC) to help it judge public opinion on the subject of whether Hungerford should adopt a neighbourhood plan (NP).
The last time the matter was publicly discussed was on 23 May 2017 when a meeting was held at which representatives from West Berkshire Council (WBC) were present, at the end of which it was decided that further discussion and consultation was needed. You can read an article I wrote following this meeting – which is in some ways a report of it and in others some thoughts about NPs in general – by clicking here. You can read HTC’s more recent summary of the issues by clicking here. Both contain links to a number of sources of information about NPs from the government and other bodies.
The more recent meeting took place in the Corn Exchange on 22 January 2018 and was attended by about 60 people. In his introductory remarks, Hungerford Mayor Keith Knight stressed that the main purposes of the event were to provide information and to enable HTC to assess the likely support for a NP. To assist with both aims, the majority of the session consisted of a presentation by Pat Wingfield of Stratfield Mortimer.
Pat is a parish councillor and was the chairman of the steering committee for Stratfield Mortimer’s NP which has recently been adopted by WBC. Indeed, it is currently the only parish in West Berkshire to have accomplished this, although five others are contemplating it. Nearby Marlborough has already embarked on its own. Nationwide, about NPs 500 have been adopted and a further 1,500 are under consideration. Clearly there is something at work which should be considered by any prudent parish or town council. The question is whether this might be suitable for Hungerford.
As Pat Wingfield stressed (and as the above-mentioned article also mentions), an NP does not give the parish autonomy in planning matters and nor does it permit anything which contradicts the district council’s own core strategy. If, for instance, this demands that (say) 300 homes be built in Hungerford then the NP cannot change this. What it can do is to specify such matters as where these should or should not be built and of what standards they should be built to. In the same way, if the district council’s core strategy says that 40% of new homes must be affordable or that barns can, subject to approval, be converted to houses then the NP cannot specify to the contrary. In the same way, WBC cannot inform Whitehall that it wants to set its own housing numbers, or turn its part of the A34 into a motorway, or compel all Sagittarians to wear hats on Thursdays: these matters are beyond its competence or in conflict with national legislation.
District councils’ strategy documents and development plans are often quite broad-brush. An NP gives the local community an opportunity to fill in some of the gaps and to create a specification for its area which will then be used as part of the consideration of any application. Any lack of precision can at present be exploited by any of the parties to an application – owner, developer, parish council, district council or public opinion – to support a development which might not be in the interests of the local area.
They key point – which Pat Wingfield made very clearly – was that once the plan is adopted it is owned by (indeed, the latter stages are paid for by) the district council and becomes part of its own policy. Some questions from the floor suggested that WBC’s possible lack of will or commitment might make it less likely that the plan would be made effective. These seem to me rather to have missed the point. If there are aspects of the plan which conflict with WBC’s own policy or some higher law, then they will be struck out or the entire plan will not be accepted. If all is acceptable and the plan is adopted, then it becomes as much part of WBC’s own policy as anything it has created itself. The challenge will therefore be for Hungerford to work with WBC to create an NP which is acceptable to all parties. Some compromises will inevitably be required, as they were in Stratfield Mortimer. However, for Hungerford to work against WBC in the matter, Pat concluded, would be pointless.
Of course (again as the above-mentioned article mentions), any policy of any council can be overturned by a change of law or policy higher up the democratic food chain. Nothing can protect against this. WBC’s own policy could, at a stroke be overturned by a decision from London that twice as many homes must be built, or that 50% must be affordable, or that all must have solar panels. To be compliant, WBC would need to amend its own policies which might include those of any NPs it had adopted.
This question was posed, in a different way, to Brian Lyttle, WBC’s Chief Planning and Transport Policy Manager at the May meeting: would an NP guarantee that the town’s wishes with regard to planning would be upheld? With the directness of an administrator rather than the affable dissimulation of a politician, he replied ‘no.’ This remark was picked up on in the questions in January’s meeting, I think unfairly. These assumed that Mr Lyttle’s reply was based on reluctance which I don’t believe it was: rather it was on the hard fact that neither he nor anyone at WBC can prevent changes in government policy (such as led to the downgrading of the planning specifications in town plans) even if these have an unwelcome effect on any policies WBC had developed itself or adopted on the part of others.
On being asked, District Councillor Paul Hewer (one of Hungerford’s two representatives at WBC) said that he supported the idea of Hungerford pursuing an NP and that WBC would give the project every support. He added that Councillor Hilary Cole in particular was very much in favour of NPs. Councillor Hewer also pointed out that, where its content hadn’t been negated by subsequent legislation, that the Hungerford Town Plan was regarded by WBC as being a relevant document when considering planning applications and other matters relating to the town. District Councillor James Cole (Kintbury) – which soon will have a closer affiliation with Hungerford due to forthcoming ward-boundary changes – also spoke in support of the idea of Hungerford pursuing an NP.
Pat Wingfield was frank about the obstacles faced by Stratfield Mortimer’s NP. These included staunch opposition from some residents, the considerable workload, an unsympathetic evaluator and the amount of dead time required for consultations when momentum would be lost. On the positive side, he had more to say. The adopted plan had already been of great use in negotiating aspects of a large development in the parish which is now broadly acceptable to all. Over 30 local projects have started or acquired fresh energy as a result of the NP and the relationships that were forged and the community spirit that was engendered during its creation. WBC, although as new to the matter as was Stratfield Mortimer PC, was very supportive. Above all, he felt that now would be a very good time for Hungerford to embark on this as discussions are now under way for the next revision of WBC’s own development plan. To be creating an NP now would enable this to dovetail with and perhaps influence WBC’s own policies for the area.
We haven’t yet mentioned money. Some astronomic figures were floated at the May meeting. Pat said that their NP cost less than they originally thought: round about £15,000, some £3,000 of which was covered by grants. More are now available. He agreed with the suggestion that Hungerford’s current town plan would save a good deal of work, and thus time, and thus money. He also agreed that WBC’s greater familiarity with the issues would have the same effect.
Then there’s the question of Community Infrastructure Levies (CILs). These are charged to developers at a rate based on the area of each property and is used as pay for the infrastructure development resulting from that development. Some of this is passed down to the parish or town council concerned – 15% in West Berkshire but the payments are capped. If an NP is adopted, however, the figure is 25% and is uncapped. This could result in the payments being over four times higher. (Were Hungerford to have an NP, the CIL payments for Salisbury Road would have been more than twice the size of HTC’s annual precept). If any new houses are to be built in Hungerford, it would not be long before additional CIL revenue outstripped any costs in preparing the NP. Here’s where an NP confers a double advantage: more money to pay for projects in the town as a direct result of developments; and the ability to have some advance influence over what form these developments take..
The big question seems to me not to be not time or money but people. Stratfield Mortimer accomplished its NP with a core of three, including Pat, as well as a number of volunteers and supporters. The process took four years. Hungerford is about twice the size. Even allowing for the fact that WBC now has more experience it would be unwise to allow less than three years for a Hungerford one. Perhaps half a dozen people, not all of whom need or (or even should be) on the town council, would be required to commit to the work. This group would need to encourage the submission of a wide range of views and to synthensise the results into something acceptable to the community and to WBC, ideally with no member too closely allied to a particular interest group. A range of skills – including, I imagine, diplomacy, patience and a strong sense of community spirit – would also be necessary as would a suitable and impartial project leader.
There clearly are many more than half a dozen such people in the town. Whether they can be found and can find they can work together on a project that will at times be thankless, frustrating and from time to time in suspended animation while consultations with interested parties are conducted is another matter. On the basis of the meeting, however, the rewards would seem to greatly outweigh the possible problems.
If you feel you would like to get involved, in whatever capacity, please contact the Town Clerk Claire Barnes at email@example.com. This will help inform HTC’s decision about whether or not to proceed. If you have any other views about the wisdom or otherwise of an NP, please contact her. If you wish you can also post a comment at the foot of this article.
In his concluding remarks, Keith Knight stressed that although HTC would be happy to help lead an NP this would only be viable if it was clear that there was a wide support for the idea in the town and that from others from both inside and outside the council were willing to get involved. It was not a decision HTC wished to impose.
There was then a show of hands with at least 75% suggesting they supported the idea (at the May meeting there was no such reaction). For a number of reasons the idea seems to have much to commend it, providing the right team can be created. HTC intends to take a decision on the matter at its next Full Council meeting on Monday 5 February. Members of the public are welcome to attend.
If you weren’t able to attend the meeting but want to see a video of it, please press the ‘play’ button below.
I didn’t vote at the show of hands but that’s because I don’t live in Hungerford although it’s our closest town which we visit most days and its welfare is very important to us. Were I to have been a resident I’d have been inclined to put my hand up (just as I would not have been after May’s meeting). Pat Wingfield’s talk seemed more full of good news and of opportunities than of bad news and problems. We also have confidence that HTC will make a decision that reflects the interests of the town and that it will be able to help create a team of people to lead the project. If that happens, Penny Post will do all it can to support this.
This information has been compiled by Penny Post. Every reasonable effort has been made to provide a clear and dispassionate summary of the meeting but these may contain expressions of opinion which may not accord with Hungerford Town Council’s official view. Links have been provided to other posts, on the Penny Post site or elsewhere, to provide additional information where this has been judged useful or necessary. The presence of such a link should not be taken to imply that Hungerford Town Council necessarily agrees with, endorses or supports any of the material contained therein.