In a letter to the Faversham News about the Neighbourhood Plan (June 12), steering group chairman Nigel Kay complained that people were given misleading information about what is possible and what is not. Unfortunately, the information he himself provided was misleading.
Before it is allowed to go to a referendum, the Plan will have to be approved by an independent examiner. Mr Kay says that alternative proposals cannot be considered by the steering group without business plans and financial information, because these will be required by the examiner as evidence that the Plan is deliverable.
This is not correct. A study of successful neighbourhood plans shows that examiners do not ask for such evidence, nor are they entitled to do so. “The legislation does not permit me to examine the soundness or quality of the plan,” says one of them. (And if Mr Kay truly believes that such evidence is necessary, why has he not demanded it for all the “official” proposals? There is much less information on those in the public domain than there is on alternative options.)
WHAT THE NPPF SAYS
This is how the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), paragraph 173, explains deliverability: “The sites and the scale of development identified in the plan should not be subject to such a scale of obligations and policy burdens that their ability to be delivered viably is threatened.”
So, for example, a plan may have policies on affordable housing quotas, or sustainable building standards, or financial contributions that developers have to pay: if these are too demanding, it could be deemed undeliverable.
There is a distinction between:
(a) viability in the context of MAKING a plan, which is what concerns us now. This applies to the plan as a whole rather than individual sites: in principle, the policies should not hinder the kind of development that would be needed to achieve the desired outcome – eg, by imposing conditions that would make development so difficult or expensive that it would be unlikely to happen), and
(b) viability in the context of USING a plan, which is what happens when a specific planning application is made for a particular site: in practice, if the development is in general accordance with the plan but policy conditions make it impossible for a “reasonable” landowner/developer to make a fair return by current market standards, those conditions may be relaxed – for example, developers may be allowed a lower proportion of affordable housing than is laid down in the plan.
Independent examiners of Neighbourhood Plans do not demand agreement from each individual landowner. Some neighbourhood plans have barely consulted landowners at all; the examiner of the plan for Thame (Oxfordshire) points out that there is no statutory requirement to do so. Some plans that were actively opposed by landowners and developers have nevertheless succeeded at examination – and, in the case of Tattenhall (Cheshire), at a subsequent judicial inquiry.
Examiners have accepted that delivery may involve future negotiations with landowners during the lifetime of the plan. For example, the plan for Kirdford (West Sussex) has a 15-year table showing timescales and priorities and what actions will be needed at various stages, including landowner negotiations.
The Faversham Creek plan has no such sense of timescale. The staging of delivery has never been discussed. It doesn’t even say what period it’s meant to cover, though this is a legal requirement (section 38B of the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act) and examiners can get quite stroppy if it’s left out.
Without timescales it’s impossible to judge feasibility. Something that might be not be achievable in five years may well be achievable in ten or fifteen.
Mr Kay and some other members of the steering group frequently assert that those proposing alternative ideas for the Creek are an unrepresentative and ill-informed minority who do not understand the realities of neighbourhood planning.
In fact, these alternative ideas are in line with the majority views expressed at public consultations, and their proponents have done a great deal of research into the rules and regulations, and to what is happening in practice with neighbourhood plans elsewhere (there are lots of them in progress and, at the time of writing, 17 have succeeded at referendum).
The Faversham Creek Trust’s steering group representative took the trouble to attend a three-day planning camp to understand more about the process – how many other steering group members have shown such commitment? Others have studied successful plans and their examiners’ reports to see what can be learned from them. They are all different, but there are common themes.
One thing examiners consistently look for is evidence that there has been open and meaningful community engagement and properly considered responses to consultation feedback. It will be interesting to see the reaction to ours.