Neighbourhood Plans.

This statement of position refers to 4 key documents, all of which are defined below.  They are:

  1. The NPPF

  2. The Local Plan

  3. Neighbourhood Plans

  4. The Alsager Town Strategy

Nick Boles, who was Planning Minister at the time, came to Sandbach to meet groups from Cheshire East on the 29th May 2014.  Action groups, officers, residents,and interested local politicians were present. ARAG was represented by the President, Chair and Vice Chair and the Independent Councillor Derek Longhurst also attended.  The purpose of that meeting was for Residents to express their concerns over the impact of Government Planning Policy on communities in the South of Cheshire East.  Mr Boles stated that all of the problems were caused by the fact that Cheshire East did not have a Local Plan in place and could not demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing.  He understood, he said, why people were angry (and many people expressed their anger and dissatisfaction) and felt let down by the government but he was not prepared to make an exception anywhere or change direction.  He then went on to say that the solution was in Neighbourhood plans.  He said “Local Plans are good but Neighbourhood plans are brilliant“.  He seemed surprised that in our region we had produced Town Strategies which have no weight in the Planning Decision making process, even though they had been developed through a long process including Local consultation.  Mr. Boles was removed from his position as Housing Minister in the Cabinet reshuffle.

At appeals, Planning Inspectors do not take the Alsager Town Strategy into account and Cheshire East Officers, having been instrumental in its preparation, choose to ignore the Town Strategy wherever it is deemed necessary.

Shortly after this meeting, Cheshire East Council, having previously discouraged Neighbourhood Plans,  attempted to encourage Town Councils to start the Neighbourhood planning process.  The Alsager Town Council decided that it would not have a Neighbourhood Plan and that instead the Town Plan, which is now out of date, would be updated  on a regular basis to reflect the current position.

In recent weeks, a spokesperson for the Local Group “the Friends of Fanny’s Croft”, a single issue group  and Councillor Hough have challenged the Town Council’s decision and have assumed to know ARAG’s position, which is only defined in this document. At a meeting of Alsager Town Council on Tuesday 2nd September 2014 Sylvia Dyke, a member of the Friends of Fanny’s Croft group, told the Council that the subject of Neighbourhood Plans had never been formally discussed by the group and that she was not aware that they had adopted a position on the subject.

The Alsager Town Plan contains a housing allocation of 1,000 until the year 2030.  This number was imposed by Cheshire East Officers and has has never been justified or formally challenged.  It was however subject to the Town Planning process and Public Consultation. Cheshire East unilaterally increased Alsager’s allocation to 1600 in their draft Local Plan (proposing 700 on White Moss) but after pressure reduced the White Moss allocation to 350 and the total to 1,250 in its emerging Local Plan.  That Local Plan has not yet been adopted and Cheshire East has also not been able to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing to the satisfaction of Planning Inspectors.

Cheshire East, unlike many other local authorities who themselves were in the process of preparing Local Plans for consultation or submission, chose not to update the existing plan, in our case the Congleton Borough Plan.  Barristers vigorously pursued this failure and the reasons for ignoring the existing plans in 3 enquiries relating to Alsager.

The consequence of this failure has been uncontrolled growth in planning permissions.  An analysis can be viewed here.   The figure of 1,000 has already grown to 1,985 ( it has doubled in the first 2 years ) and as this number covers the period until 2030 and Cheshire East’s Local Plan is not expected to be adopted until late 2015 at the earliest, 3,000+ can be expected.  This represents a growth of at least 60% in Alsager’s population.

A Neighbourhood Plan would have no impact on these passed Planning Permissions.

A Neighbourhood Plan must be approved by the Local Authority and it must be consistent with the Local Plan.  It defines where development will take place and it must be positive, it can not reduce the housing allocation imposed on an area by the Local Plan.  If a Neighbourhood Plan seeks to stop development in one area, it must, subject to Local Authority approval and a Local Referendum,  define where alternative development will take place.

Nationally, only 13 Neighbourhood plans have been adopted and the Neighbourhood Planning process typically takes 2 years hard work from start to adoption.

ARAG considers that in Alsager’s case, the Local Plan, when adopted, will define Planning Policy and that a Neighbourhood Plan will add nothing to the decision making process.  As Alsager will exceed its housing target by at least 1 – 2,000 houses, a Neighbourhood Plan is now not necessary.  It would be a clear case of “Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.  If the Local Plan and Cheshire East promises are to be believed, following adoption, no more planning permission  will be given for new sites in Alsager.  The quota has already been massively exceeded.

If Cheshire East’s Strategic Planning Board continues to take politically motivated planning decisions, such as the recent disgraceful display over the White Moss, it will do so whether a Neighbourhood Plan exists or not.

Quite apart from the irrelevance of a Neighbourhood plan to Alsager’s predicament and the time taken to gain approval, the Neighbourhood Planning Process is costly ( how much and who pays?).  It needs the commitment of the Community and it needs to be developed by a representative  group with a mandate to determine where more development in Alsager will take place.

Over a period of two and a half years, ARAG officers have received support from  private planning consultants with considerable experience in developing local plans and advising local authorities on  wide ranging planning policies.   In late 2012 we approached them for advice  regarding the subject of the preparation of a Neighbourhood Plan for Alsager. At that time they were engaged in working on such plans in various parts of the country. They expressed the view that quite a number of local councils and resident groups had consulted them but few had pursued the process; “many have withered on the vine.”

The main reasons for this were timescale, the attitude of the Local Authority, the inability of local communities to agree upon sites for development, the consultation process and the lack of a local plan. The consultants had the view that Neighbourhood Plans could have an impact but only if used in the development of and to inform the Local Plan.

In their view our local authority had dismissed the Neighbourhood Plan process and at that time in Jan/ Feb 2013 Cheshire East could give no firm date when the local plan would be submitted. The Consultants also commented upon how developers  use  development sites identified but not adopted from the consultation process to their advantage. This proved to be the case. Sites included in the preparation of the Alsager Town Strategy, including Hassall Road and Fannies Croft were in fact commented upon by Barratt QC in the first public enquiry into Hassall Road.  Hassall Road, though taken out of the final plan was lost to development.

If the only thing a Neighbourhood plan  can do is  define where development will take place within the constraints of the Local Plan, and if there is no development to take place, we ask what is the point of a Neighbourhood Plan?

 

Definitions.

1. The NPPF

The National Planning Policy Framework ( NPPF ) sets out the government’s planning policies for England and has been in operation since  27 March 2012.

It replaces all previous Planning Policy Statements.

Its central theme is the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

It provides guidance for local planning authorities and decision-takers, both in drawing up plans and making decisions about planning applications.

It demands that Councils have a Local Plan in place, and that Councils can demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing.  In the absence of either of these, there is a  presumption in favour of development.  Cheshire East’s inability to deliver an inspected Local Plan or to demonstrate a 5 year supply has meant that all planning proposals have been accepted; by Cheshire East, by appeal or by judicial review, whether they are appropriate to an area or not. Central Government will not consider exceptions.  The NPPF, having initially been drafted by a board dominated by developers and planning consultants, is very much biassed in favour of forcing development and it is the root cause of much of the inappropriate development now taking place nationally.

The  NPPF can be viewed here

2. Local Plan

The Local Plan is the Statutory Development Plan for Cheshire East and is the basis for determining planning applications. A version of that plan was submitted for inspection in May 2014. Typically, the inspection process takes 18 months.  This suggests that the Plan could be in place by the end of 2015.

The submitted Local Plan covers a range of matters including the number of new homes that are considered to be needed and where they should be located; the amount and location of new employment land; protection and improvement of important open areas and provision of new ones; provision of new infrastructure and improvement of town centres and community facilities in the Borough.

Local plans must be consistent with national policy in accordance with section 20 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (as amended) and the National Planning Policy Framework.

Progress of Local Plans can be viewed here.

Information on Local Plans can be seen here

Cheshire East Local Plan can be viewed here

3. Neighbourhood development plans

Neighbourhood planning was introduced through the  Localism Act 2011.  Neighbourhood Planning Legislation came into effect in April 2012.

A neighbourhood development plan establishes general planning policies for the development and use of land in a neighbourhood such as where new homes and offices should be built and their appearance. 

Neighbourhood plans must be positive on development,  consistent with the Local Plan and the Local Council’s assessment of housing and other development needs in the area.

As of April 2014, nationally, 13 neighbourhood plans have been passed at community referenda.4

You can read more about Neighbourhood Plans here

4. The Alsager Town Strategy.

The Alsager Town Strategy looks at how the town might develop over the next 20 years. It indicates where new employment, housing and other uses may be located, along with how new infrastructure might be prioritised. The Alsager Town Strategy was approved at a meeting of the Alsager Town Council on 31st July 2012.

The Alsager Town Strategy was a consideration in the development of the Cheshire East Local Plan but was not a material consideration in the determination of any planning applications. Despite consultations with the Alsager Community, it carries no weight.

You can see the Alsager Town Strategy here.