The latest draft of the Neighbourhood Plan was put before Faversham Town Council on 7 April. There was a large number of people in the public gallery.
On 25 March the steering group had voted to include a choice of alternative options for three sites (Ordnance Wharf, Oil Depot, Coach Depot) and deferred discussion on Swan Quay until its next meeting. There was general agreement on all the other sites. On 1 April they changed their minds and excluded alternative options on the grounds that these were not in the site use resolution made by FTC on 28 October 2013, and under Standing Orders a resolution cannot be changed for six months. The Ordnance Wharf option was spared because the 28 October resolution specifically allowed for alternatives on this site, though some members of the steering group had wanted to exclude this as well.
It had been argued that the steering group – which is subject to the same Standing Orders – was itself in breach of the six-month rule which it had invoked as a reason for excluding the options, because it had made resolutions on 25 March and overturned them one week later. There had been an exchange of emails on this subject, and the council and steering group had convinced themselves (though possibly not others) that procedures had been carried out correctly.
A member of the public argued that the six-month rule was irrelevant anyway, since the 28 October resolution does not prevent the inclusion of alternative options. It says: “Members agreed that the steering group could begin to draft the Neighbourhood Plan, bearing in mind that there would be opportunities throughout the drafting process for further amendments to be proposed and alternative uses to be presented.” This was either not understood or ignored.
Had they wished to do so, FTC could have overcome the six-month restriction by (a) five councillors proposing that they do so, or (b) waiting three weeks before making a decision. Nigel Kay (NK), chair of the steering group, said there was not enough time for either of these. The plan must be rushed through to referendum in early 2015, to avoid clashing with the general election later in the year, and so (having been on the go for two and a half years) cannot possibly wait another three weeks.
NK told everyone how important it was to have a Neighbourhood Plan because otherwise the Creek would be at the mercy of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). He had been to a conference where he had been told how awful the NPPF was. Planners at Swale had explained to him that without a plan, it wouldn’t be a question of where to put housing, there would be housing everywhere. He wanted to have “a bit of housing” in order to prevent a lot more. He hoped that in the consultation process everyone would get a complete picture of the pressures upon Faversham.
NK also suggested that the alternative proposals were not economically viable, and that the business case for a working creek had a £1 million “funding shortage” [members of the public pointed out that this was untrue, but he carried on regardless]. He said there were lots of things he would love to see, including the BCA proposals for a community centre and boatyard, and claimed that “we’re trying to accommodate as much as we can”.
Councillor Shiel Campbell, noting that the plan would cover a 20-year period, asked if it was necessary for every option to be funded and ready to go immediately – and could developer contributions be used to cross-subsidise community projects? FTC’s advisor John Sell (JS) said that not everything need be deliverable straight away. On developer contributions, however, he said that the sums of money would not be all that significant, and how they were used would depend on the type of development – they had to be associated in some way with the development; they could not be pooled and there was no mechanism for cross-subsidy or trade-offs. NK said that in any case the Streetscape Strategy was the priority for funding from developer contributions.
Councillor Andy Culham said there was a lot of opposition to the way the plan was going, and it would be better to spend more time getting something the public would support. If it did not have the public behind it, the plan would not get through the referendum anyway.
The mayor, David Simmons (DS) said the consultation must be open, not like some others (he gave the NHS as an example) which are managed by constructing the questions so as to limit potential responses.
Councillor Trevor Payne said that what goes before the Independent Examiner (who will say whether or not the plan will be allowed to go to referendum) must be deliverable. JS said that the definition of what is viable and deliverable is complex. It essentially means that what is proposed could be economically viable, and this must be independently assessed. It does not depend on who currently owns the site and what they want to do with it. It just has to be shown that a proposed development could give a rate of return within the range that would normally be expected for that type of development. For example, with an office development one would normally expect a return of 8-10%; since office rents in Faversham are low, an office development might not be viable.
If there are multiple options, all of which would be viable, there is no obligation to go for the one which gives the highest rate of return. JS suggested that it should be possible to make a rough assessment of viability.
Councillor Tom Gates recalled a history of failed attempts to produce a workable plan for the Creek. He wondered how much Swale had spent over the years on planning appeals.
It was suggested that the council vote on a resolution, but Shiel Campbell said there had been no real answer to the question of why alternatives had been removed – if they existed, wouldn’t it be better to include them, rather than being accused of not offering a fair choice. NK said (contradicting what he had said earlier) that the steering group had excluded the options because it didn’t think they would be deliverable.
DS then moved a resolution that the current draft should go for consultation, and that after the six week consultation period “the draft will be refined based on consultation feedback, and the final version will be put to the TC for agreement. The final version might be different from the current draft.”
This was approved on a majority vote. Three councillors voted against it.