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Should Penzance create a Neighbourhood Development Plan?

Last week I attended a training session hosted jointly by Cornwall Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) about the subject of Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDP). Here I want to outline objectively what this process is and whether this part of the world ought to set to this task or indeed not.

The main thrust of NDPs is localism they were introduced as part of the localism bill, with the view to
handing local authorities and local communities more power and say in planning the future of their area. Something I greatly agree in, I think the future of Penzance should be more powers and services devolved to the local level and less reliance on distant decision makers. So at the outset the whole process is very attractive to me and my view of politics.

So what is a Neighbourhood Development Plan? It's a bit of a slippery eel when it comes to definition. It's ultimately up to those who work through it, consulted on it and ultimately who vote on it, what it is.  In broad terms it is a plan to direct development, the NDP when (and if) adopted, becomes part of planning law. The area that it applies to has to be decided it could be part of a parish, a number of parishes and everywhere in between. So it's a very important document when finished with potentially wide ranging implications for the future development of an area so quite rightly it's a long and stringent process of careful consideration, consultation, inspection and culminates in a public referendum. This process takes at least 12 months. The flip side of that is that it is a very long and expensive process and there is a very real risk that if public consultation is not robust or that local politicians or the media aren't behind the proposed NDP it will fail at referendum. (The referendum is won or lost on a simple majority of those that go to the polls).

The process of NDP, taken from Wivenhoe Neighbourhood Plan website

The scope of a NDP is vast, even the length that it should apply is open ended, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. An NDP can be used in a number of different ways, it can be used in a 'positive' manner for example sites could be identified for housing or it could be used 'negatively' to safeguard sites from development. My understanding is that it doesn't have to be restricted to housing it can be used to guide and limit all development. So we could earmark sites for retail use or for industrial use, either to safeguard them in their present guise or to encourage developers to build such units in designated areas.

It strikes me that safeguarding or negatively outlining the limits of development is simpler (i.e. cheaper) than positively encouraging sites. For the simple reason that stating this field/ play park/ green/ allotment should not be built upon is self explanatory the only thing needed is to get consensus that this is off limits. Whereas positively identifying sites (hopefully not play parks, allotments or greens) becomes a lot more convoluted and expensive. It's not quite as simple as saying build on this land, it would have to be checked that this was lawful, that the landowner was agreeable, that there were adequate surveys. It would be no use stating we want 500 houses (for example) on these fields and nowhere else and then finding out those sites turned out to be an important habitat for protected animals or riddled with mine shafts or in some other way unsuitable for development.

So part of the scope is identifying or limiting sites for development but there are also potential design clauses for buildings and even the size of developments sites. It must be noted that a Neighbourhood Development Plan is as long or short as the community wishes, there is no limit on the number of policies. So for example the entirety of a plan could be all new builds need the highest levels of insulation. Or all new builds need solar panels on the roof. Or new houses have to use local granite. Or new developments can only be in clusters of 50 houses or 20 or 10 whichever. Or we don't want an out of town retail here and here. Also usefully the NDP can be used to set the number or ratio of affordable homes in future developments.

Now to the good bits, as well as giving local people a real say in development. One of the sweeteners for towns and parish councils and their communities is that the amount of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL: the renamed section 106) spend locally is greatly increased. (As a slight aside, the DCLG presentation had the figure of a 25% CIL for towns and parishes with a NDP and the planning officer was eager to note that Cornwall Council hadn't decided that ratio....). The NDP can have written into it, the priorities for such spending, which again lets us decide locally and democratically.

Finally the limits of NDP, it can not be used as a tool to limit development. It is local control but it does require to be 'in general agreement' with both the National Planning Policy Framework and the Cornwall Local Plan. The big issue here is that a NDP would have to be in line with the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development', it can't be used as a tool to say no to development generally and it has to accept the housing numbers that Cornwall Council wants. Which Penzance's Labour councilor Cornelius Olivier are currently trying to greatly increase (Call for extra 1,350 homes to be built in Penzance). This in a nutshell is localism, the big picture the number of houses, can be swayed by a few elected officials and officers yet to decide where they go requires a referendum, it's bonkers it really is.

I hope that summarises the scope of the Neighbourhood Development Plan scheme. It is an exciting opportunity for Penzance Town Council to step up and have a great say in the future direction of development. This alone I think is enough for us to seriously consider it. But there are serious considerations for us to consider, not only what scope we choose, whether Penzance develops it's own plan or works with neighbouring parishes and a whole host of questions and options. Whichever route we do choose if we do choose to do so, it is definite that this is a long and costly process. Do we want to concentrate a large part of our time in the next 12 months probably longer? Could councilors, the town clerk and staff do something more productive for the community instead in this time? Then there's the costs, Porthleven has announced they are to pursue a NDP with an estimated cost of 10 to 15 thousand pound. Depending on the scope of our plan and how we manage it, perhaps we'd be looking at double that budget perhaps even a lot more. Obviously we have a duty as councilors to make sure public money is well spent. Money in itself is a separate issue, should we cut services or perhaps raise the precept and thus council tax next year? I like the idea of a Neighborhood Development Plan I really do, but there's certainly a great deal to consider.

Any thoughts or comments let me know.


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