What is a Neighbourhood Plan?

Some background

Planning applications in the parish are decided by Cornwall Council as the local Planning Authority. If an application meets the requirements of both national and local planning policy, Cornwall Council is obliged to approve it. Although the public and bodies such as the Parish Council are consulted, their comments can only be taken into account insofar as they relate to some aspect planning policy (i.e. the planning officer can only take account of an objection that is made on valid planning grounds, however sympathetic they might be to your point of view).

What policies apply to planning applications?

The National Planning Policy Framework is the set of basic planning policies and regulations which applies nationally to all new development throughout the country. Local Planning Authorities can set additional planning policies to regulate development in their own area. These local policies supplement the national policies, as both are applied together when planning decisions are made, so they cannot conflict. Cornwall Council has prepared and is consulting on a ‘Cornwall Local Plan’. This sets out their vision for growth and identifies the quantity and broad location and key sites for new housing, community facilities, shops and employment, and will be the basis for future planning decisions in the county until 2030. Without a plan, development would still happen, but decisions would be made purely on the basis of the National Planning Policy Framework, without local people having a say on local planning policy. If approved, Local Plan will replace the previous District Development Plans produced by the former district councils (Carrick, Restormel, etc.) and will come into force in late 2015.

What is a Neighbourhood Plan and why do we need one if we have a Cornwall Local Plan?

A Neighbourhood Plan is basically a third tier of local planning policy, which is applied to an even smaller area, usually a parish, and which sets out policies in relation to development and the use of land in that area. The Localism Act gave ‘qualifying bodies’ – in Cornwall, which is divided into civil parishes (electoral areas), these would be parish councils – the power to write a Neighbourhood Plan in consultation with local people and have it adopted as local planning policy in their own area. The Plan must be in ‘general conformity’ with National Planning Policy and the Local Plan, because all three documents would have equal weight and be applied together when planning decision are made, so they must be consistent.

The Cornwall Local Plan is aimed at meeting the future needs of Cornwall and preserving some of the essential characteristics of the area, but because it applies to the whole of the county, it is somewhat ‘high level’ and strategic. For example, it contains provision for the development of 3000 houses in Truro and a further 900 in the Roseland area between 2010 and 2030 (many of those have already been built or granted permission), but crucially it does not break those allocations down by parish or by village or stipulate exactly where they should go in any more detail than this. Unlike the old district plans, which it replaces, it does not set ‘settlement boundaries’ (i.e. a line on a map round a particular village, for example, beyond which no development is permitted). Some parishes are concerned by this loss of detailed planning guidance, and 70 of the 215 parishes in Cornwall have already expressed an interest in or already started work on a Neighbourhood Plan to address this.

What can a neighbourhood Plan do? What can’t it do?

A Neighbourhood Development Plan is essentially an additional layer of policy governing land use and development within the area covered by the plan. It can add some of this missing detail, by saying how many houses should be provided for in the Parish and where they should or shouldn’t go. It can be used to preserve or earmark land for particular purposes, for example a green field that is especially valued by the community, new facilities that are wanted, car parking, footpaths, cycle routes. It can be used to make policies on what new developments should look like in a particular area, for example, you might wish to limit the number of storeys. It can cover themes of transport, second homes, renewable energy, landscape, wildlife, heritage, amongst others. How elaborate your plan is or what you include in it depends very much on the priorities of local residents.

It cannot be used to stop all future development. It must allow for future housing development and allocate land for what would be seen as a reasonable number of houses in the context of the Cornwall Local Plan, as it has to be in ‘general conformity’ with that plan. The draft Neighbourhood Plan has to be scrutinized by an independent Examiner and then put to public referendum before it can be adopted. It would not be passed by the Examiner if it was in conflict with the Local Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework.

What is the difference between a Neighbourhood Plan and a Parish (or Community) Plan.

Parish Plans have been around for a while and are something quite different. A Neighbourhood Plan cannot deal with matters that are not about land use (e.g. dog bins, community activities). This sort of issue might be included in a Community or Parish Plan, which are much broader. While something included in a Parish Plan might be referred to by the Planning Officer as a ‘material planning consideration’, a Parish Plan does not have the same force in planning terms as a Neighbourhood Plan, which, once adopted, has the full weight of planning policy.

How many houses would we have to allow for?

To arrive at a ‘reasonable number’, we would have to look at how much development had taken place in the past, what housing need is there in the parish at present (for example, how many local people are waiting on the Homechoice register), and ask what need is there likely to be in the future over the life of the Neighbourhood Plan. This might be in the order of 30-50 over the same 20 year period as the Local Plan, but it would not be in the hundreds – unless people in the parish especially wanted to allocate land for that many houses. The plan can set an indicative range as a guideline, but not an absolute cap (e.g. not ’37 and no more’).

What is the process? Who writes the plan? What is the timescale?

There is no deadline for producing a plan, as we do not have to have one at all unless we feel that one is needed, but if we do produce one, the advice from Cornwall Council is that the plan should have the same ‘life’ as the Local Plan, i.e. it should last until 2030. If we want to produce a plan, it would make sense to start as soon as possible, as the Local Plan is due to come into effect at the end of 2015 and producing a Neighbourhood Plan could take up to 3 years.

The Parish Council cannot just write a plan by itself and ask the community to vote for it. Although the Parish Council controls the process, it must be community driven and local people have to be consulted on and involved in every stage of the plan’s production. Although it takes time to do properly, this degree of community consultation and involvement is essential as the finished plan must contain what the majority of people in the parish really want, otherwise it will fail at referendum.

The Independent Examiner will want to see documentary evidence that this has happened and of how the views of the community have been taken into account. If the Parish Council does decide to go ahead with work on a Neighbourhood Plan, it would first apply to Cornwall Council to formally designate the parish as as the plan area. The Parish Council would have to set up a steering group with local people to carry out research, gather information and hold a number of consultation events, and eventually to draw up a draft plan. The draft plan would be put out to public consultation to allow people to comment. The Parish Council would have to decide then if any amendments were necessary before submitting it to Cornwall Council, who would advertise the plan for 6 weeks before sending it to an Independent Examiner (not part of Cornwall Council). The examiner might make comments, such as suggesting amendments to wording or asking for more work to be done on a particular area, but if he or she approves the plan, it goes out to public referendum, which is held like an election. If a majority of voters who turn out on the day vote yes, the plan has to be adopted by Cornwall Council as planning policy.

How much will it cost? What help do we get from Cornwall Council? Are there any grants?

The Parish Council would meet the cost of actually producing the plan, and the cost will depend very much on the scope of it and what help can be offered by volunteers. A modest plan with a limited scope might cost as little as £3,000. Some parishes have been able to keep costs low by using volunteers to hand-deliver letters, getting sponsorship from printing firms, pooling resources with other parishes, making use of skills (offered free of charge) in the community that would be expensive to purchase on the open market, such as project management. A particularly ambitious plan might involve significant costs. For example, if an Environmental Impact Assessment were required, this alone might cost £75,000. Until residents have told us what they want the plan to cover, it is impossible to say what the total cost might be, however the advice from Cornwall Council is to concentrate on the issues that are most important to the community and make sure your plan addresses these.

Cornwall Council pays for the Independent Examination and the public referendum. It also provides a named planning officer to give professional advice on matters such as policy wording, advising on the Local Plan and national policy and other aspects of planning law, such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Conservation areas, what situations would require an Environmental Impact Assessment, etc. Another officer, either a Community Network Officer or a Regeneration Officer would advise on consultations and help the Parish Council obtain information from within Cornwall Council as part of its research.

The current round of government grants has finished, and an announcement is due to be made shortly on what funds will be available next year. Grant applications cannot be made in retrospect, but do need to be based on firm costs Some direct (non-cash) support has also been offered by planning consultants such as Planning Aid and Locality.

If we are the last parish without a Neighbourhood Plan could we be ‘dumped on’ (made to take more than our fair share of development?

No, because the planning officer would ensure that each parish’s plan contained a reasonable allocation for development, in the context of the Local Plan. Conversely, there would be no advantage to waiting until other parishes had ‘mopped up’ all the development with their allocations.

What will happen if we do not have a Neighbourhood Plan?

Planning Applications would only have to meet the requirements laid down in the National Planning Policy Framework and in the Cornwall Local Plan. Local people and the Parish Council will be able to comment on applications as they do at present but there would be no third layer of local planning policy for developers to comply with.

How will the hospitals cope with all these new houses?

You would not be able to cover that in your Neighbourhood Plan as that is outside the parish and would be dealt with at strategic level in the Cornwall Local Plan. The Local Plan provides for infrastructure growth directly resulting from new development through a Community Infrastructure Levy, which is a tax on new development.

Will we have to involve other parishes? And landowners?

If your plan affects other parishes, you would need to consult them and they may be included in the public referendum. Some parishes with similar issues have decided to work together to share costs, even if they are working on their own plans. Some have produced joint plans. You would have to consult landowners if your plan says anything about the future use of their land. If you are saying ‘ this is how our plan is providing for growth and this is where we want new housing to go’, you must be able to demonstrate that this policy is based in reality and that you have engaged with the landowners concerned and that this is a real possibility.

Surely the big developers will ride roughshod over us as usual: if they want to build 300 houses on the edge of the village, they’ll get permission and our plan will be ignored?

No. If you have an approved plan that has made reasonable provision for growth and has indicated a range say 30-40 houses, for argument’s sake, and you have stipulated ‘we want them to be provided as infill development and here is where we want them to go’, and you have indicated a settlement boundary beyond which you do not want development, those would be valid planning grounds for refusing a large speculative application and those policies within your plan would have to be taken into consideration by those deciding the application. An adopted Neighbourhood Plan carries the full weight of planning policy – exactly the same weight as the Cornwall Local Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework.

What did people vote for at the meeting? And what happens next?

A total of 87 people signed the attendance register over the three nights. Of those who stayed for the public vote, after listening to the speakers, 80 (not counting councillors) were in favour of the Parish Council starting work on a Neighbourhood Development Plan.

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