The 2011 Localism Act gave the right to local communities to create their own neighbourhood plans which would help shape various aspects of the future development, growth and character of the area.
It might be worth quoting the following introductory paragraph from the Gov.uk website:
Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area. They are able to choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, have their say on what those new buildings should look like and what infrastructure should be provided, and grant planning permission for the new buildings they want to see go ahead. Neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community where the ambition of the neighbourhood is aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area.
The Planning Aid website also emphasises the following point:
It must be stressed that the policies produced cannot block development that is already part of the Local Plan. What they can do is shape where that development will go and what it will look like.
The question of whether or not a a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) should be adopted is for each community to decide. There’s no obligation to do so but, if they wish to do so, there are a number of conditions that need to be met. The NP becomes a part of the wider Local Plan which every district council must by law produce and update and must therefore be consistent with the Local Plan’s objectives. If a community decides to produce an NP then the district council has an obligation to provide a specified levelof assistance to the process.
An open meeting of Hungerford Town Council on 23 May highlighted a number of issues concerning this. Two seemed to stand out and were covered several times.
The first is that, as the excerpt from the Planning Aid website makes clear, an NP does not give the parish or town council any power to over-ride or offset anything in the Local Plan developed by the district council. (The second point made by Planning Aid, about shaping the nature of the development, is clearly quite vague and subjective: none the less, it would seem from this that if the NP is adopted, then the district council must at least bear these points in mind when making its decision.)
The second point, leading on from this, is that the district council is, in exactly the same way, subject to changes of policy from Whitehall. If a decision is taken to increase the number of new homes (as seems likely) then West Berkshire and other councils will need to update their Local Plans accordingly. In the same way, the nature and scope of an NP can be changed by legislation, even after it has been adopted. This taking away of what has been given can happen at any time. It happened in 2014 when the planning aspects of any town plan (such as Hungerford has just produced) were declared void. It will probably happen after the forthcoming election. In West Berkshire, it will probably also happen in 2019 when the council completes its own updated local plan.
There’s also the cost. The ranges quoted at the meeting – £8,000 to £63,000 – are serious for a council of Hungerford’s size, although grants are available. It can also take time, two years being suggested as a minimum.
West Berkshire’s Planning and Transport Manager, Brian Little, and the Senior Planning Officer, Laila Bassett, addressed the meeting to give an introduction to neighbourhood plans. No one could accuse them of painting an over-optimistic picture of the work and costs involved and the likely permanency of the results. All councils have a statutory duty under the 2011 Localism Act to provide specified assistance to councils wishing to adopt a plan but do not pro-actively promote these. (West Berkshire Council’s Service Level Agreement shows what it is able to do to assist parish and town councils in this process.)
On the positive side, producing a plan can have great benefits. Much of work on what would become Hungerford’s plan has already been done for the town plan in 2013. They are useful for organisations applying for grants to be able to mention that their aims are consistent with an adopted plan and this gives the donors greater comfort. They enable local councils to retain 25% of Community Infrastructure Levies. They also provide useful guidelines for the town council and other organisations to follow when assessing their priorities. Perhaps above all, they engender a sense of co-operative community spirit. The 2013 Hungerford town plan covers ten separate areas, including tourism, transport and sport, of which planning is only one. Having people decide on what the town wants and, in the process, perhaps creating voluntary groups to help promote and foster these, is a good thing. For all kinds of reasons, not all of what is set out can be accomplished: but to agree on what it is you are trying to do is a vital first step.
If the meeting highlighted both the advantages and the drawbacks of adopting a plan then this is perhaps no bad thing. A show of hands at the end suggested that most people were undecided. The Mayor, Keith Knight, said that the council would look into the matter in more detail over the next couple of months (including talking further to other communities which are at various points in this process) and arrange another meeting and questionnaire soon afterwards. Keep your eye on Penny Post for more information.
The following websites provide more information on neighbourhood plans: My Community; Forum for Neighbourhood Planning; Planning Aid; Locality; The Department for Communities and Local Government; and West Berkshire’s own website.