4 November 2016 by Joey Gardiner
The first rejection of a neighbourhood plan at referendum raises questions about the limits of localism and shows what can happen when a planning authority and neighbourhood planners stop talking, observers say.
Swanwick: the parish council chair says the village may conclude that it is “not worth” submitting another plan
Last month, Swanwick's neighbourhood plan became the first of the nearly 250 taken to referendum to be voted down by its community. The parish council of this Derbyshire village, situated within Amber Valley borough, had drawn up a plan designed to ensure the protection of the open spaces separating it from other villages. However, on examination the plan was significantly amended, with several key policies, plus its aims and objectives, deleted. This led to the parish council campaigning against it at referendum, resulting in an 85 per cent "no" vote.
Swanwick has doubled in size since the 1970s and its neighbourhood plan describes it as having been "under siege" from developers. The plan's objectives included retaining the village's setting, protecting open land, and creating more open space. Nevertheless, its examiner, Nigel McGurk, concluded that large parts of the plan did not meet the "basic conditions" prescribed under the Localism Act, which include having regard to national planning policy and guidance, and being in "general conformity" with the existing local plan.
Parish council chairman George Soudah fiercely disagrees with the examiner's findings. He said that the parish was advised that similar policies had been endorsed in other plans. But McGurk told Planning: "Every so often you come up against a gap in understanding of what a neighbourhood plan has to do to meet basic conditions. Several policies were far removed from meeting them."
Soudah said it was "made clear to the parish council that, following submission, the process was entirely within the control of Amber Valley Borough Council". So after McGurk reported, the parish waited for the council to contact it about next steps. But Soudah said it was not contacted before being told that the examiner's recommendations were to be considered at a council cabinet meeting in June, where they were accepted, setting the vote in motion. When the parish informed the council that it wanted to withdraw the plan, the council said that it could not stop the referendum because the parish had not notified it prior to the cabinet meeting.
Soudah said Amber Valley Council also failed to inform the parish that any request to withdraw the plan had to be made before that point. Under the Localism Act, councils have a "duty to support" those drawing up neighbourhood plans, but the level of support required is not defined Gary Kirk, neighbourhood plan examiner and managing director of consultancy Your Locale, said: "The spirit of neighbourhood planning is supposed to be one of co-operation. The duty to support is viewed differently in different authorities and, without guidance, there is a bit of a vacuum." Amber Valley Council said it was duty-bound to hold the vote once the changes had been accepted, but declined to comment on whether it had informed the parish of this or should have given it more support.
Schedule 4B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 prescribes a very limited period in which parishes can withdraw plans. Soudah said that this point has been the major lesson for Swanwick, with six or seven other parishes having contacted him asking how to avoid a similar fate.
This story also raises questions about the autonomy given to neighbourhoods when drawing up plans. Soudah is particularly upset that the examiner deleted the aims and objectives of the plan. "What is the point of localism if we can't put our own aspirations in the plan?" he asks.
Chris Bowden, a director at consultancy Troy Navigus Partnership, said that this tension is common, and has been heightened by political rhetoric about neighbourhood planning giving localities "control". "Neighbourhood planning doesn't give control, but it allows communities to shape development," he said. "The sales pitch by ministers is one thing, but people need to read the small print."
However, McGurk said that neighbourhood planning as a whole was "extremely successful". "The majority don't have these problems," he said.
Kirk added that, far from raising questions about the success of neighbourhood planning, Swanwick's vote can be viewed as a "triumph of localism". He said: "Ultimately, the community has spoken." The borough council's statement said that if a new plan is drawn up, it "will again offer support". But Soudah said he did not know whether Swanwick's faith in the system had now been irretrievably lost. "One choice is to do nothing now; to conclude that it's not worth it. I don't know which way the decision will go," he said.