During the preparation of the Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan, “too late” was the constant refrain whenever it was suggested that alternative proposals should be explored in response to consultation feedback, or when there were calls to pause and reconsider. There was to be no delay, we were told, not even if an extra couple of weeks might have made all the difference to the soundness of the plan – a case of better never than late.
And yet, in summer 2014 we had to wait three months after the close of the pre-submission consultation, before a frantic rush to revise the plan and get it out for next stage of consultation. That consultation closed on 22 December, and now there has been another two months of silence.
The plan was supposed to have been submitted to an Independent Examiner by the end of January. We understand, from responses to enquiries by members of the public, that this has been delayed “slightly” and that an Examiner has not even been appointed yet. This could result in further delays; the usual advice is to start getting an Examiner lined up as soon as the plan goes out for consultation.
What will be sent to the Examiner?
There have been concerns about the form in which responses to the last consultation would be sent to the Examiner, since SBC had said they would be summarised. In response to enquiries, it has now been confirmed that the full original representations will be sent to the Examiner along with the summaries.
SBC says that all the representations will be made public in a Word document. This will be a table which includes a reference number; name and/or organisation of respondent; whether it is a support, object or comment; the full representation and the summary of the representation. The document will be available on the SBC website, and Faversham Town Council will be asked to place it on the Neighbourhood Plan website.
This will not, however be done until the representations have been sent to the Examiner. But the consultation closed two months ago, so there has been plenty of time to compile the information, which is (or should be) in the public domain. Why can it not be put on the websites now, so we can all see it?
All at SEA
We also understand that a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which is a legal requirement, has not yet been completed. The SEA should evaluate the impact of the plan’s proposals on the environment (this includes heritage as well as the natural environment) in consultation with statutory bodies including English Heritage and Natural England.
The government’s Planning Practice Guidance, which accompanies the NPPF, says that at an early stage in the development of the plan it should be established whether an SEA is needed. If so, it should be prepared alongside the plan as an integral part of the process, so that the environmental impact of different options can be compared, with the outcome being a factor in the decision on which options should be chosen.
When the final version of a plan is submitted to the local authority, it must be accompanied by either a statement saying it does not need an SEA and explaining why, or a full Environmental Report plus a “non-technical summary” (ie, in layman’s terms). These should be among the documents put out for consultation.
The importance of the SEA is illustrated by the fact that the only Neighbourhood Plan so far to have failed at Examination (Slougham) did so because its SEA was unsatisfactory. It had other flaws too, but these might have been overcome with amendments advised by the Examiner; the SEA was the fatal blow, since it is a statutory requirement and there was nothing the Examiner could do to fix it.
The Slougham plan did at least have an SEA of some form. Ours has nothing at all, even though it has long been accepted that it would need one. This is on record as far back as February 2012, and was confirmed at a steering group meeting in February 2014 when the first draft of the plan was being worked on, but still nothing was done.
A member of the public who enquired about our SEA last November was told it would be “available shortly”, but nothing appeared. Three months later, it is apparently still “not quite ready”.
Ready or not, it is difficult to see the logic of carrying out an SEA at this stage of the process. By definition, it cannot have been used to inform the choices made during the drafting of the plan. There can be no comparison of alternative options. It was not available during the consultation period, so the public and other consultees have had no opportunity to comment on it.
This all cries out for an explanation, but nothing is forthcoming from either SBC or Faversham Town Council. What little information we have has emerged from enquiries by individuals – but we shouldn’t have to ask. This is a Neighbourhood Plan, and the neighbourhood is entitled to know what is happening.
After the Town Council had agreed the final draft of the plan (apart from the bits that were added or amended later when no-one was looking), the steering group was formally “suspended” – but it was not dissolved. It should be brought back, so that all the representative members as well as the general public can find out what’s going on and be involved in it.