WDDC Progress Report with Neighbourhood Plans in West Dorset
WDDC have produced a report (copied below) on progress within West Dorset in relation to the production of Neighbourhood Plans.
Neighbourhood Planning: Review of Progress
1. The purpose of this report is to provide Town / Parish Councils and Neighbourhood Forums with an update on progress with neighbourhood planning in West Dorset and to consider some of the lessons learned from the experience to date.
2. This report:
• Provides an update on progress with neighbourhood plan production in West Dorset;
• Gives an overview of the keys points arising from the experience of preparing neighbourhood plans;
• Outlines the key issues faced by local communities at different stages in the production of neighbourhood plans; and
• An update on funding arrangements.
3. Progress in West Dorset
4. Neighbourhood planning is proving very popular in West Dorset with:
• Two neighbourhood plans ‘made’ (i.e. completed);
• Two neighbourhood plans submitted for examination; and
• Eleven neighbourhood areas designated, with ten neighbourhood plans in preparation.
5. The Cerne Valley Neighbourhood Plan was the first neighbourhood plan to be completed in Dorset. Following a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum on 11 December 2014, the Council officially ‘made’ the neighbourhood plan on 8 January 2015. The Loders Neighbourhood Plan also had a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum on 5 May 2016 and was ‘made’ on the 21 July 2016.
6. The examination of the Buckland Newton and Piddle Valley neighbourhood plans are currently underway or about to start. Once concluded, these plans will proceed to referendum.
7. Neighbourhood areas have also been designated for:
• Bridport Area; (parishes of Allington; Bridport; Bothenhampton & Walditch; Bradpole; and Symondsbury)
• Longburton (Cam Vale);
• Maiden Newton and Frome Vauchurch;
• Upper Marshwood Vale; and
• Yetminster and Ryme Intrinsica.
8. The Longburton (Cam Vale) Neighbourhood Area was established with a view to preparing a neighbourhood development order for a specific site: the Longburton Depot. Proposals for this site are now being taken forward in an approved planning application. Consequently the neighbourhood development order is no longer being taken forward. However, neighbourhood plans are being progressed in all the other areas listed above.
9. In early July 2016, Chickerell Town Council submitted a proposed Neighbourhood Plan area for designation.
Key General Points
10. Preparing a neighbourhood plan takes along time. On average it takes 2 to 3 years, with some plans taking longer. For example, work on the Cerne Valley Neighbourhood Plan started in August 2011 with submission in December 2013. It was finally ‘made’ just over a year later in January 2015.
11. Planning officers have a key role in helping communities to understand what a neighbourhood plan can achieve and its limitations. They can help communities to understand:
• The resources, governance and project management required to take a neighbourhood plan forward; and
• The statutory processes that need to be followed at various stages, including neighbourhood area designation, examination and referendum.
12. Good governance arrangements and project management are important, particularly where the neighbourhood area covers several parishes, as is the case at Bridport, where a project manager was employed to take the project forward.
13. A parish or town council or neighbourhood forum needs to ensure that any steering group or sub-group set up to prepare the neighbourhood plan is accountable. Planning practice guidance was updated in February 2016 to clarify that “the terms of reference for a steering group or other body should be published and the minutes of meetings made available to the public.”
14. In the event that a ‘conflict of interest’ should arise during the course of developing the plan it is advised that the member should bring it to the attention of the steering group as soon as is reasonably practical. A conflict of interest could include membership of an organisation, ownership of an interest in land or one’s employment status. Any matters of interest identified shouldn’t preclude a member from participating in the development of the neighbourhood plan, it is simply a declaration of potentially competing interests, and to promote the objectivity of the persons involved. This also ensures transparency and honesty throughout the process.
15. It is also important for a steering group to be inclusive and to retain clear lines of communication to the wider community, for example through the publication of agendas, minutes of meetings and newsletter updates. Regular newsletters, such as the three issues of the Cerne Valley Neighbourhood Plan Newsletter that were produced, help to maintain the interest of local residents.
16. Project management can help communities to understand the time required to collect robust evidence and undertake adequate stakeholder engagement. It can also be used to identify gaps in expertise and to help groups to decide whether it would be useful to employ planning consultants. Examples of the work undertaken by planning consultants in West Dorset include:
• Buckland Newton: assistance with plan drafting;
• Loders: audit of plan evidence base, assistance with plan policy drafting and maps, preparation of ‘basic conditions’ statement and facts and figures information; and
• Piddle Valley: assistance with consultation meetings, site appraisal work, plan drafting and sustainability checks.
Issues at Key Stages of Preparing a Neighbourhood Plan
17. The key stages of preparing a neighbourhood plan are:
• Designating the neighbourhood area;
• Preparing and consulting on a ‘community draft’ neighbourhood plan;
• Submission of the neighbourhood plan with consultation undertaken by the council;
• Independent examination; and
• Referendum and the making of the neighbourhood plan.
18. The main issues at each of these stages are discussed below.
19. Neighbourhood Area Designation
20. Most neighbourhood areas relate to the area covered by a single parish council, although some areas, including Broadwindsor, Piddle Valley and Upper Marshwood Vale, cover a number of parishes run by a single group parish council.
21. In the Bridport area the parishes of: Allington; Bridport; Bothenhampton & Walditch; Bradpole; and Symondsbury agreed to apply for a wider neighbourhood area which would cover the whole of the built-up area of Bridport town. Work is progressing on a single neighbourhood plan covering this wider area.
22. Maiden Newton Parish Council and Frome Vauchurch Parish Meeting also agreed to apply for a wider neighbourhood area covering both parishes.
23. In West Dorset the designation of neighbourhood areas that are based on parish boundaries and are not controversial has been delegated to the Corporate Manager – Planning (Community and Policy Development), in discussion with the local member.
24. All the neighbourhood plans in West Dorset are being progressed by town or parish councils, except the Askerswell Neighbourhood Plan, which is being progressed by a neighbourhood forum. It was necessary to set up a forum because there is no parish council in Askerswell; only a parish meeting.
25. Establishing neighbourhood forums is more complex as a number of issues need to be resolved including:
• establishing a representative steering group;
• preparing a constitution; and
• defining a suitable ‘forum area’. In West Dorset this would usually be the parish, but this can be a problem in unparished areas, such as Weymouth, where there may be few obvious boundaries.
Preparing and Consulting on a ‘Pre-submission’ or Draft Neighbourhood Plan
26. Community groups have demonstrated significant aptitude for organising and running successful community events to engage with local people. Groups are using a wide variety of approaches including; questionnaires; ‘Planning for Real’ events; and public exhibitions. Response rates are generally good however, groups often find it difficult to stay focused on planning issues and on those particular planning issues (i.e. non-strategic) that a neighbourhood plan can address.
27. The most common approach to seeking views on local issues has been the preparation of a questionnaire. Planning officers have advised groups to try and design questionnaires that are shorter and focused on the ‘land use planning’ issues. They have also advised that groups should consider other ways of dealing with ‘non-land use planning’ issues, for example through the refresh of a Parish Plan.
28. Communities often find it difficult to prioritise issues, which is essential to keep the plan manageable. There is often reluctance to drop some issues from a plan, and experience has shown that this can be made easier by establishing a clear set of aims and objectives at an early stage.
29. Neighbourhood plans also need to be supported by evidence, which should be proportionate to the complexity of the issue being tackled. If new evidence needs to be commissioned, this can cause delays in the plan’s production.
30. Writing draft policies is one of the most difficult tasks for local communities. Groups have often sought the advice of planning officers or, more recently, have employed planning consultants to assist with this task. Policies should not be overcomplicated to enable their easy interpretation by users of the plan.
31. The majority of the neighbourhood plans in West Dorset cover rural areas and unsurprisingly seek to tackle rural issues. Typically, plans have sought to support small scale housing and employment development through site allocations and / or the amendment of the ‘defined development boundaries’ (DDBs) as shown in the Local Plan. For example, the Cerne Valley Neighbourhood Plan established a new DDB for Godmanstone and new DDBs were also established at Loders.
32. Many plans have identified their valued community assets, such as village halls and open spaces, and have introduced policies to protect them. Several plans have also introduced more detailed design guidance often based on earlier village design statements or conservation area appraisals.
33. Some policy objectives are proving difficult to implement in the light of national and local policy. For example, Buckland Newton has sought to introduce a local connection test for the allocation of affordable housing, to establish local space standards (room sizes) and to establish sustainability standards, which may not reflect the approach in national policy.
34. Before the formal pre-submission consultation takes place a qualifying body should be satisfied that it has a complete draft neighbourhood plan. The Council aims to meet with all groups at this point to undertake a review of the plan and ensure all the legal requirements have been met. The neighbourhood plan group must then consult for at least six weeks on the final version of the whole plan. Experience shows that where a plan is materially modified such as through the inclusion of a new or modified policy the whole plan should be re-consulted upon. It is not appropriate for example to consult on individual policies or to undertake a ‘focused’ consultation.
Submission of a Neighbourhood Plan
35. The council has a statutory duty to undertake the consultation on a submission plan, but as they are prepared by local communities. Officers have to assess the submission plan against the statutory requirements; place it on the website; and publicise it. The council then has to collate any responses, which provides an opportunity for any final concerns to be identified and discussed with the neighbourhood plan group.
36. The submission version of a neighbourhood plan should be accompanied by a consultation statement, basic conditions statement and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or ‘screening opinion’ if SEA is not required. To date neighbourhood plan groups have understood these requirements and produced the necessary documents, which need to be started early in the process to avoid this requirement becoming unduly onerous.
37. The consultation statement should contain details of the individuals and organisations who were consulted about the proposed plan; explains how they were consulted; summarises the main issues and concerns raised; and describes how these issues and concerns have been considered and, where relevant, addressed in the proposed plan.
38. Although there is no prescribed format in which a consultation statement should be presented, examiners are feeding back their preferred requirements. Examiners have requested that the consultation statement should ideally be in a single document rather than broken up and that individual comments can be tracked through the process so that they can clearly identify who said what and subsequently what the qualifying bodies response was to each.
39. Once submitted, examiners will not usually accept additional evidence other than minor points of clarification, so information contained in un-submitted documentation will not be able to be taken into account. It is therefore recommend that a wider set of supporting documents are submitted alongside the Plan for example; any evidence base studies, terms of reference and minutes of meetings.
40. National guidance advises that it is only after the independent examination has taken place and after the examiner’s report has been received that the local planning authority should come to its formal view on whether the draft neighbourhood plan meets the basic conditions. Experience is however showing that reviewing the draft Plan and making constructive comments on the basic conditions and legal requirements before the formal pre-submission consultation is essential as there is no procedural mechanism in which to amend the Plan once it is submitted to the LPA.
41. The Council has used the Neighbourhood Planning Independent Examiner Referral Service (NPIERS) for the appointment of all its independent examiners. NPIERS has proven to be a cost efficient process with easy access to impartial and highly qualified examiners on an ‘as needed’ basis.
42. The examiner considers whether the neighbourhood plan meets the ‘basic conditions’, which are that the plan should:
• contribute to the achievement of sustainable development;
• be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the development plan (i.e. the joint local plan);
• have regard to national policy (NPPF and PPG); and
• be compatible with EU and human rights obligations.
43. Community groups typically demonstrate the requirement to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development through the production of a full strategic environmental assessment (SEA) or a simple ‘sustainability checklist’.
44. The Council will advise on whether a neighbourhood plan is in general conformity with the local plan. There is little guidance at the national level about which policies should be considered to be ‘strategic’ and to what degree ‘conformity’ is required. In general terms, the ‘Strategic Objectives’ in the local plan are considered to constitute the strategic policies and should be taken as such.
45. Neighbourhood plan groups can easily access national policy, as it is all online on a single website. However, there is a lot of material and the guidance is regularly updated, making it difficult for groups to keep up to date. It has been particularly difficult for communities seeking to make provision for affordable housing, such as Buckland Newton, against a background of changing national policy and guidance.
46. In terms of compatibility with EU Directives, the most common issue is the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive which requires a ‘screening opinion’ on all land use plans. The Government are aware this has often been overlooked or left to the last minute and has now prescribed this requirement into amended regulations and planning practice guidance.
47. The majority of examinations nationwide are being handled by written representations and not through more costly and time consuming hearings. In West Dorset there was a one-day hearing for the Cerne Valley Neighbourhood Plan, but the Loders examination was by way of written representations. It is anticipated the Buckland Newton and Piddle Valley Neighbourhood Plans will also be examined by written representations.
48. An examiner’s report usually recommends some changes to the neighbourhood plan. In the case of Loders, the examiner’s recommendations were not prescriptive allowing some scope for the council to have a dialogue with the neighbourhood plan group and parish council in order to reach consensus and agree wording changes. This also requires officer time to negotiate and agree the final set of amendments with the qualifying body.
Referendum and Making the Neighbourhood Plan
49. In advance of the referendum the council must prepare an information statement and publish notice of the date of the referendum. The council’s election team takes the lead in its running and if possible it will be combined with elections. Most recently the Loders referendum was held with the Crime and Police Commissioner elections on 5th May 2016.
50. As at July 2016 over 200 neighbourhood plans had been successful at referendum nationally. Often they have high turnouts with ‘yes’ votes far exceeding the minimum 50% required (i.e. Cerne Valley – 92% yes; Loders – 83% yes).
51. The government has established two separate funding streams, one for local communities preparing plans and one for councils to help with the costs of undertaking statutory procedures, such as arranging examinations (and paying the examiner’s fees) and holding referendums.
52. Local communities are able to apply for grants (since March 2016 up to £9,000 per neighbourhood area) to contribute to the costs of producing a neighbourhood plan. They are also able to apply for up to a further £6,000 in grant or specific packages of support for groups facing more complex issues. A number of neighbourhood plan groups in West Dorset have been successful in securing funding through this mechanism.
53. The introduction of government grant funding for local communities (and the clarity that the ‘procedural costs’ would be borne by the relevant district or borough council) has helped local communities to understand that they will not have to bear all the costs of plan preparation. However, it should be noted this support is reviewed annually and may not always be available.
54. As more neighbourhood plans are produced and guidance is produced by organisations such as Locality, local communities have been able to reduce costs by drawing on best practice. However, resources (both in terms of expertise and funding) remain a challenge for many neighbourhood planning groups, especially those tackling more complex issues, such as in Bridport.
55. As work on the Cerne Valley and Loders Neighbourhood Plans has shown, taking a submitted neighbourhood plan forward to completion has significant resource implications for planning policy (and other) officers. This is because once a draft neighbourhood plan is submitted for examination; the council is required to take the lead in public consultation; arranging the examination; and holding the referendum. It is therefore important that the advice in this document is considered through the neighbourhood plan production process to increase the likelihood of the plan being successful at examination and to avoid unnecessary delays.