The conference was held to help parish councils and other interested people make better use of the planning system within their local community. Decisions on planning applications can often be a cause of tension within communities, when it's considered that either permission has been given for something that residents think will detract from the 'feel' of the area, or when planning applications are refused and this is seen to hold back or restrict development that many think is needed.
Within Shilton and Barnacle over recent years, there has been much discussion of the development of gypsy and traveller sites, particularly as these have been within Green Belt land. The extent to which new housing development should be permitted, that won't result in either village growing inexorably bigger and yet provides necessary housing to meet the rising demand, is also a planning matter that will need to be constantly under consideration. One thing is certain, the parish council will always be at the sharp end of planning issues and controversies, and it was intended that this conference would provide some help and expertise to parish councillors trying to balance the competing demands that planning matters always throw up.
In the morning, delegates heard from Mark Sullivan from the Warwickshire branch of the CPRE talking about the community's role in planning, including how to respond to planning applications, your right to attend meetings of the local planning committee, and the appeals system that exists for applications that have been refused. In truth, much of this would already be familiar to parish councils who are consulted on applications in most months. What was interesting though was the fact that, alone amongst Warwickshire councils, Rugby Borough Council did not allow members of the public (or parish councils) to speak at meetings of the planning committee. It was disappointing that Rugby has taken this position, particularly as seeing that public speaking at committee meetings is undertaken at all the other councils in Warwickshire (and a vast majority of councils across the country) without any apparent problem.
It does leave the impression that residents in the Rugby borough area are not afforded the opportunities to engage in the planning process that they would be if they lived in Atherstone, Leamington Spa, Nuneaton or Stratford-upon-Avon, and representatives from the CPRE drew attention to how unsatisfactory this arrangement was, and how out of step it was with accepted practice throughout the rest of the country.
As a result of this, I was asked - in my capacity of Chairman of the Rugby branch of WALC - to write to Rugby Borough Council to see whether it would be prepared to consider introducing the right of public speaking at future meetings of its planning committee. I shall report back on any response I receive.
In the afternoon, the conference received a presentation from Steve Patalong from Vital Villages on Neighbourhood Development Plans. It was this issue that I was most interested in.
Neighbourhood Planning is a new idea, introduced by the Government as part of the Localism Act 2011, which intends to give communities more influence and say in the sorts of development that will be permitted within their local area. It is prepared by the local parish council, and can set out a vision for the area, indicate where new homes, shops and other development should be built, identify and protect local green spaces, and influence what new buildings should look like.
As Steve Patalong made clear, Neighbourhood Plans can decide where and what type of development should happen in the neighbourhood, and can promote more development than is planned for by the local planning authority (ie. Rugby Borough Council), but what it cannot do is conflict with any existing policy/strategy of the local planning authority, and it cannot be used to prevent development that is otherwise planned for. And for many parish councils, this is the concern that they have over the value of Neighbourhood Plans: that they will enable more development to occur, but they won't be able to prevent less.
I don't entirely share this view. If Neighbourhood Plans are being 'sold' as a means for local communities to control development in their area, then there will be disappointment because I don't believe the plans will exactly provide for this suggested level of direct control. In December 2011, Rugby's MP Mark Pawsey was saying:
"Local plans ensure that power is placed firmly within the hands of local people. I urge those Rugby residents who want to participate in the future of planning and development in their local area to get involved with the production of their own plans."
This may have been over-egging what Neighbourhood Plans are capable of doing, but I'm not completely sceptical of their merits. Giving parish councils more responsibility in designing how their community will evolve in the future - within a framework that determines that community sustainability must come through planned development - is legitimately, I think, part of a localist philosophy, and therefore something I support.
Whether a Neighbourhood Plan is the right approach for Shilton and Barnacle remains to be seen, and is no doubt something that I'll blog about in the future. It must also be said that unless the reported £20,000 cost of producing such a plan (to be paid for by the parish council) is much reduced, this will be prohibitive for all but the biggest local councils. But its an interesting new development, and this part of the conference was very much the most useful part for me.
The event was free of charge for those who attended and was paid for from funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, who also produced this short video about neighbourhood planning: