Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water – there are referendums galore this Thursday

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You probably thought that we have had our fill of referendums for the next several millennia.

But, in my researches for this Thursday’s by-elections, I stumbled upon several Neighbourhood planning referendums happening this Thursday, 30th January.

These polls take place under the Localism Act 2011 and various statutes such as the Neighbourhood Planning (Referendums) Regulations 2012.

The Local Government Association provides a helpful briefing paper on the subject.

Our own LDV editorial team “attack sea otter” and parish council chair, Mark Valladares wrote about this subject in his briefing on the powers of parish councils in 2018:

(Parish councils) can also create their own neighbourhood plan, a document which dovetails with the wider Local Plan, and which, if passed by a local referendum, theoretically makes unplanned development less likely – this came out of the 2011 Localism Act – and offers an enhanced entitlement to a chunk of the Community Infrastructure Levy that accrues from development within the Parish.

And the astute amongst you have, no doubt, spotted that all this legislation came in between 2010 and 2015. Therefore, it is, of course, (irony warning) OUR FAULT.

From what I can gather, there are Neighbourhood Planning referendums this Thursday in:

Wendover, Aylesbury Vale
Wetherby, Leeds
Eynsham, West Oxfordshire
Horton & Wraysbury, Windsor and Maidenhead
Holmer and Shelwick in Herefordshire
Eckington, Wychavon
Felsted, Uttlesford
Gotham, Rushcliffe
Cramlington, Northumberland

There were a smattering of such referendums last year. Here is the result of the Hythe and Dibden referendum, which was carried “yes” by a large majority.

But this Thursday seems to a bit of Neighbourhood Planning Referendum “Super Thursday”.

Here’s an example of a Referendum Neighbourhood plan from Wendover. It’s been put together by Wendover Parish Council and covers housing, sustainable development, business, tourism, community facilities, green spaces and environment, infrastructure and connectivity and transport.

I think it is important to recognise that a vast amount of hard work has gone into preparing all these neighbourhood plans, often by voluntary councillors and staff and/or by lone clerks who are often part-time. So these plans are a fairly big deal as far as local communities are concerned.

If you want to enlighten us with some knowledge of this process (or amend/supplement any information in this post) and perhaps local experience of Neighbourhood planning referendums, please do spill the beans below the line or, better still, why not write a full-blown post about it for us?

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Nonconformistradical 27th Jan '20 - 10:28am

    I agree with Mark as to their value. e.g. if one lives in an area where the principal local planning authority is controlled by a different political persuasion from one’s immediate local community they are a good means for the local community to avoid the relevant local authority riding roughshod over community needs.

  • I think here in Exmouth, which still maybe the largest town to have gone for a single town wide Neighbourhood Plan, the turnout was around 16%, very positive support, around 85% as I remember. I think most have been fairly positive. I think the jury is still out on its overall usefulness, but clearly if the extra CIL money can be spent on projects etc that communities want, that could be a good thing. Personally, I think all this depends on redrafting the constitutional relationship between nation and local government and a huge overhaul of public finance, breaking down barriers between capital and revenue spending as only one of the major issues. Another being “Heseltine style” “bidding” for money which will almost always favour advantaged communities.

    In that sense, Neighbourhood Plans were always a side issue. Lib Dems in Coalition were keen to stress that it meant more control going locally, but of course the major and fundamental problem with our approach towards localism is how we allowed Pickles, in particular, to carry out much more centralisation and emphasise local government in austerity cuts. Whatever our ideological differences on austerity financing – and we know the party is riven completely on this topic, it could never have been right to devastate locally controlled services and finance even more severely than national. One of the key principles of the Lib Dems has been transferring more power and control locally – this did precisely the opposite!

  • clive englisjh 27th Jan '20 - 12:42pm

    Here in Maidstone we have had a number of Neighbourhood Plans reach this stage, the very first was not by a Parish Council, but by a Neighbourhood Forum, some have not reached a Poll, because they proved controversial within a community, or in one case said simply no development anywhere.
    Others have received very significant local support. very few have been received with apathy or the lack of interest suggested by Nick Collins.
    The ones that have been adopted or are nearing adoption are being used within the Planning process with some success, both in shaping policy and in terms of development control

  • Nick Collins

    A key principle of the process is to put together a team, who at that stage are NOT led by the Town or Parish Council, but Councillors are obviously encouraged to have input, and that this group will be resourced and financed to carry out proper local meetings. I can’t comment on how rural parishes do this, but in our medium to big town, we had advertised drop-ins in each of the town’s 5 wards, with local ward councillors present to chat to, and usually a member of the Neighbourhood Plan team also. We had a team chaired by the town’s Community Association, and the Vice Chair was the local Civic Society chair, so I suppose that fits in with your “great and good” of the local community, Nick. Each drop-in had a list of key issues for the ward and the town overall which had been put together by the Team, but they were encouraged to raise other issues where they seemed important to them. There was another round of public consultation later in the process when parts of a draft plan had been written.

    At the end of the process, the legalities from the Localism Act kick in, where the District Council (or local planning authority) are consulted, which is where the “top-down” nature of it comes shining through. We had a number of things we locally might have liked to include, but if impinging on the NPPF or on planning law, or on the Local Plan, were very very difficult to include. As I said earlier, the jury is still out on how positive an effect we can have overall, but I think as a way of giving the enthusiasts in the town a way of getting positively involved, it had merit – and when reviews take place (probably after 5 years) that will give updating a chance.

  • I should say the team was chaired by the Chair of the local Community Association at the time the process started (the new Chair has also been involved).

  • A couple of “points arising”, if I may. Thank you for this piece, Paul. It’s not often we have a chance to look at the workings of our lowest level of democracy.
    My understanding is that Neighborhood Plans are supposed to give local people a say in the direction their community will take in the future. Unfortunately, parish/town councils are under no obligation to allow this process to happen. I have asked my local parish council several times if we can have a neighborhood plan (or even one of the briefer versions) and have been told it’s too expensive and they haven’t got the time – end of argument. Democracy shouldn’t be a post code lottery.
    I am sympathetic to Nick’s point about these exercises being invariably dominated by the “usual suspects”, the select few who seem to turn up on local councils, as trustees of charities and the boards of local organisations.
    Similarly, I understand Mark’s point about “lack of capacity”, but I always believed that one of the roles of local government is to create that extra capacity, to engage with local people so that they will become “active citizens”. That sounds like a very liberal idea to me !

  • Chris Cory
    I am surprised that there has been the response that it can’t be afforded. I am not sure about now, but there was quite a pot of money available from the DCLG to accomplish the process (not sure whether still available now). Our town wasn’t in at the beginning, because we saw the downsides, whereas when we went for it a couple of years after they started cash was still there for that purpose.

    Nick Collins

    I know you didn’t say “great and good” – I paraphrased you using what is normally used as an ironic description! And, of course, enthusiasm in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing, but I would much rather have people who want to participate than those who sit on the sidelines and merely criticise!

  • Diane Holden 28th Jan '20 - 10:38am

    I am secretary of the steering group created to make a Neighbourhood Plan for our town of about 8000 people. The initial drive came from the town council advertising a public meeting to see if residents would be interested in doing this. About 200 people came to this meeting and a subsequent one to hear what it was all about and were then asked to volunteer to be on the steering group. This started out at about 25 local volunteers and 2 town councillors and it was very clear that it should be residents rather than councillors who drove this. Very soon meetings were down to about 10/12 people who were doing the work. It is non-political, as is the town council supposedly but the area is solidly Conservative. This gives residents with other ways of looking at things a chance to have a voice and maybe some influence. We are nearing the end although not referendum ready yet. We have done everything we could to make it known to the local community – leaflets and surveys to every household, drop- ins, stalls at local events, talk at local Rotary club, we have a website. We’ve just completed a supplementary survey targeting 18-50 year olds as most of the people engaging with the project have been over 50 and we wanted to show that the whole community was involved. However I am still astonished by how many people locally still claim never to have heard about it or received any literature from us. We have used consultants as none of us has any expertise in planning; we really are just a group of local residents/business people concerned about the future of our town. This is decision-making at a very local level and should be applauded.

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