One of the first acts of your new parish council, back in early 2016, was to formally request approval from Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) for the parish to develop a Neighbourhood Plan (also called a Neighbourhood Development Plan).
In August 2017, over a year after the parish council submission, HBC approved the request. A Neighbourhood Planning Steering Group (NPSG) was immediately formed from volunteer residents of the parish, plus two parish councillors, one of whom chairs the group. The NPSG is responsible for delivering the Plan.
A Neighbourhood Plan is a new type of community-led planning document introduced by government in the 2011 Localism Act. It is a statutory document with legal standing and part of a raft of new community rights to enable local communities to play a much stronger, positive role in shaping the area in which they live and work. The Plan takes a 20-year view about how a community sees itself developing and encompasses a wide range of topics, from land use to commercial development, from transportation to nature reserves.
There are no hard and fast rules about what should go into a Neighbourhood Plan, although it is subject to a number of constraints. There are however hard and fast rules over how it is developed. The process of producing it takes place under the watchful eye of the local council, in our case HBC, and the contents have to pass the eagle eye of an examiner appointed by HBC who will ensure it meets European obligations, has regard to national planning policies, is in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan, is compatible with adjoining Neighbourhood Plans, and contributes to the achievement of sustainable development. It must also be accepted by a majority of votes in the parish before it can be adopted. This is obtained via a formal referendum conducted by HBC. To achieve the latter will obviously require considerable engagement with the community along the way including a formal 6-week consultation exercise.
It is perhaps appropriate at this point to say what a Neighbourhood Plan is not:
It is not a tool that can be used to oppose the Local Plan. It sits alongside the Local Plan and must conform to the latest version.
This may be a message that some will not like to hear but it is the reality. In fact, there is no advantage in producing our Plan in advance of the emerging Local Plan as if we did it would only have to be modified to conform when the new Local Plan is formally adopted. We do need to have our Plan in place shortly after this.
As I hope our readers will appreciate by this point, there is a considerable body of work to undertake if we are to get to the point where we have a Plan that will get a favourable vote from the community, a sign off from HBC, and will also pass the necessary government examination.
Such an activity is challenging enough for those with experience. For the volunteers who undertake neighbourhood planning in many communities like ours, the activity presents a steep learning curve and requires many hours of extra-curricular activity. As with any volunteer activity there is considerable turnover. In our case, all but one of the original Steering Group have resigned at various points over the year. Others have been recruited to fill the gaps, and this has put a delay in proceedings until they are up to speed. A further challenge comes from recruiting sufficient local residents with survey distribution, project management, planning, public relations, website development, questionnaire development, data entry, statistical analysis, photography, and report layout and design skills who are willing and able to devote the many hours of (unpaid) work needed to achieve a signed-off Plan. Many are happy to criticise while few are willing to volunteer. Needless to say, with few volunteers the process will take longer and some activities, such as the all-important public relations, may be neglected.
So where are we with our Plan?
As noted earlier, a Steering Group was formed at the end of 2017. Members immediately went on courses and consulted with various experts, including others who had produced plans for communities with similar characteristics to ours. In parallel, volunteers were sought (all parish residents) for five Focus Groups (Housing, Transport, Landscape, Environment, Facilities). By the beginning of 2018, each group had been formally tasked with producing a report that identified existing issues, took account of the wishes of residents as contained in the 2015 Community-Led Plan Survey, and further contained the members’ personal suggestions about how they would like to see the community develop over the next 20 years. Reports were requested by the end of March 2018. But this was a volunteer activity with a significant learning curve and the timescale proved not realistic in all cases. The current status is that by the end of September reports have been received from four out of the five groups. Obviously these reports are not representative of the parish as a whole. They are the ideas of a very few people, and as such, contain suggestions that may or may not be used in the final Plan. One example of the latter is suggestions that would not pass the required examination. The Steering Group is taking advice in this regard from a qualified experienced planning consultant.
In parallel, a detailed Project Plan has been developed identifying everything we need to do to put a Neighbourhood Plan in place. On the Steering Group wish-list is the development of a website which will keep the entire community fully in the picture. We have made a start on this, but it has ground to a halt due to the lack of volunteers.
We recognise that the views and input of as many parish residents as possible is of crucial importance, and so the next major activity will be a Survey incorporating the Focus Group work that will go out to the entire community. This is a key communication that will provide the opportunity to validate, or otherwise, the views of the relatively small number of parishioners on the Focus Groups. It is not appropriate for the Focus Group reports in their entirety to go out to the community for the reasons outlined above.
Once we have the results of this Survey, then public meetings will be used to exchange views and define what goes into the Plan. We will again seek assistance from a consultant to ensure that the contents will pass muster both with HBC and their examiner, as well as receive a resounding ‘Yes’ vote in the community referendum – the last major activity before the Plan is adopted.
The above is a very high level view of the major milestones. The lack of volunteers makes predicting their exact timing challenging. If you feel you have skills that could be useful and are willing to devote some of your time to help, the Steering Group would be delighted to hear from you.