Neil Merrick 06 June 2017

Why parish councils are getting involved in planning

When residents in Newport Pagnell were told their town had been earmarked for 450 new homes they took a deep breath - and asked for more.

As a result, 1,200 will now be built at Tickford Fields on the outskirts of the Buckinghamshire town over the next few years, with a further 200 homes planned on other sites. The quid pro quo is that Newport Pagnell should get a new primary school, with a likelihood other services will also improve.

The proposed 1,400 homes are included in Newport Pagnell’s neighbourhood plan, adopted last July following lengthy discussion and a referendum. It is one of about 300 towns or parishes in England with a neighbourhood plan and is ahead of its principal authority, Milton Keynes, which has yet to finalise a local plan for the wider area.

Town clerk Shar Roselman says the neighbourhood plan gives Newport Pagnell safeguards while no active local plan is in place. It is also music to the ears of ministers, who want more planning issues decided at parish level, with residents embracing development as well as raising objections.

'We knew there was going to be building in the town,' she says. 'We felt it was better to do our own neighbourhood plan and ensure the infrastructure that’s needed was in place.'

The town council was told by Milton Keynes that at least 1,000 new homes are required to justify an extra primary school. The NHS has been less forthcoming on whether more homes merits additional GPs, but a proposed shopping complex includes a well-being centre.

Neighbourhood plans were conceived as part of the 2011 Localism Act, which also gave communities the right to build. While the latter failed to generate much in the way of enthusiasm or housing, the government sees neighbourhood plans as giving communities more say over where homes, shops and offices are built, not just how many are provided.

Roselman strongly recommends that plans identify preferred sites for development, not just say how many homes will be built over, in Newport Pagnell’s case, a 15-year period. 'We had to do proper site analysis but on the whole a good neighbourhood plan should be site based,' she says.

According to the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), neighbourhood planning is allowing towns and parishes to throw off their ‘Nimby’ image, with communities able to influence development rather than leaving everything to planning authorities

Justin Griggs, head of policy and development at NALC, says developers are engaging more with parish councils, while residents see the value of building homes for future generations. 'Communities are always wary of anything that’s imposed top down,' he says. 'It’s better if it’s driven by communities with help from others.'

Residents must approve a neighbourhood plan through a referendum before it is adopted by the principal authority for the area. Where no town or parish council exists, the plan can be put together by a neighbourhood forum. It is up to the council or forum to decide the period of time covered by the plan.

In Uppingham, part of Rutland, town councillors used the neighbourhood plan to negotiate fewer homes with more green space. 'In the past, developers and landowners were only encouraged to talk to their principal local authority,” says town councillor Ron Simpson. 'Now they have to talk to their parish council as well.'

Simpson is director of Uppingham First, which includes businesses, the town council and Rutland Council. The plan, which runs to 2026, is business-led, he says, with a strong focus on the high street and local economy as well as housebuilding.

During consultations, children as young as six offered their opinions over the town’s future. 'Neighbourhood plans are becoming more and more sophisticated,' he says. 'They tend to be land-use related but, if you get the community together and ask what people want, it’s astonishing.'

Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, welcomes parish involvement in planning but is concerned the expansion of neighbourhood plans may lead to ‘unrealistic expectations’ over what is achievable.

'Planning requires a lot of time, resources and energy,' he says. 'If communities are saddled with that and don’t get support then generally richer towns can pull it off quite well but poorer more complicated areas can’t pick it up in the same way.'

Much depends on whether parish councillors understand much about planning or can call upon residents, such as retired planning officers, with expertise. If not, says Ellis, there is a danger the process will be dominated by those with the strongest voices, with no guarantee that landowners or others with vested interests will be successfully fended off.

The government provides up to £15,000 to cover the costs of drawing up a neighbourhood plan but some councils spend considerably more. 'If you want areas to shape their own futures, you need to help communities that don’t have planners living around the corner,' adds Ellis.

Thame, in Oxfordshire, spent £110,000 on a 20-year plan and, since last August, has employed Graeme Markland as a full-time neighbourhood plan continuity officer. Not only was the plan costly, but it is one of the most extensive in the country and covers more than 50 policy statements.

Plans for a 775-home development on the edge of the town were rejected in favour of the same number of homes across five sites. This should mean the homes are built sooner, but it remains to be seen how much infrastructure follows.

'Because developers are competing with one other, they will bring sites forward in the first five years,' says Markland.

South Oxfordshire is one of 139 councils to have adopted the community infrastructure levy, but this will not necessarily generate sufficient for a primary school and health facilities.

Markland commends his town councillors for becoming better informed about planning and understanding the local and national housing picture. But they have no desire to take on the role of the principal authority in determining applications. 'We are a plan making authority not a planning authority,' he says.

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