How we did it: High Bickington parish plan

A Devon community organisation's work in delivering a parish plan offers a model for neighbourhood planning in rural areas that fits in with the Government's localism agenda

David Brown (far left) updates Steve Jackson and Ian Hobbs on the development. Jim Wileman/UNP photo
David Brown (far left) updates Steve Jackson and Ian Hobbs on the development. Jim Wileman/UNP photo

Project: Preparation and implementation of a parish plan for High Bickington, Devon
Organisations involved
: High Bickington Community Property Trust and High Bickington Parish Council supported by the Communitybuilders Fund, Devon County Council, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Homes & Communities Agency, the Leader 4 Programme, Pearce Construction, Torridge District Council and Triodos Bank

On a hillside next to a village in north-west Devon, building has started on a project that anticipated the Government's localism agenda by ten years. The going has been hard, but High Bickington's residents can at last look forward to a return on their investment of thousands of hours of voluntary input.

Construction has begun on two workshops, 18 homes - including nine for shared ownership and seven for affordable rent - and a biomass-fuelled heating system on 8ha of land formerly owned by Devon County Council at Little Bickington Farm. This initial phase is part of a wider scheme with full planning permission for 16 affordable and 23 open-market homes, including five in converted barns, six workshops, a community hall, a sports pitch and, if government budgets allow, a new primary school.

By 1999, High Bickington had seen its population drop to around 700, raising questions over the future of local services. Local action group Project 2000 set the regeneration ball rolling with a parish appraisal that highlighted a need for workspaces, affordable homes, community facilities, parking spaces and environmental improvements. This led to the adoption of a 20-year parish plan in 2003.

In 2004, a community land trust was created as Project 2000's successor body to buy and hold land for community benefit, and the farm site was subsequently transferred to it. The High Bickington Community Property Trust has received a £50,000 grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to help with its core running costs. The trust, in which 215 of the 800 current villagers hold shares, has been working to deliver Project 2000's vision. "We wanted to make the village more sustainable by tackling a whole set of issues through a holistic approach," says trust chairman David Brown. "Parts of our experience will be widely applicable elsewhere."

Intensive community engagement, featuring leaflets, web updates, parish council briefings and exhibitions, has been a hallmark of the parish plan. The plan proposed building a mixed-use development at the farm to meet the needs identified in the original appraisal. An area of community woodland planted six winters ago is now well established, but the built elements have taken longer to mature.

In 2003, an outline application submitted by the parish council proposed 52 homes, including 36 affordable ones. Despite Torridge District Council's support, it was rejected by the Government following a public inquiry in 2006 due to a range of concerns, including a fear that the development would be too big for its setting. A revised full application was approved by the district council in January 2009 and this time the Government did not intervene.

The trust is acting as developer and Pearce Construction is carrying out the first phase on a fixed-price design and build contract. A grant of £193,000 towards the cost of the heating project and first workshops is being provided by the Leader 4 programme, an initiative to assist rural areas in north Devon backed by the Government and the European Union. In January, a £2 million loan from ethical lender Triodos Bank completed the initial phase's funding. In addition, the Government's Comm- unitybuilders Fund has agreed to provide £1.8 million in grants and loans for the community hall.

As well as deferring payment for its land, Devon County Council has spent £850,000 on roads, planning and a renewable energy grant. "Even when we get our money back on the land this will be a net investment into the community," says Ian Hobbs, the council's assistant director for strategic planning and commissioning.

Until the property market downturn, the housing element of the scheme was intended to do without public subsidy. Last autumn, housing and regeneration quango the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) approved £360,000 of gap funding. Steve Jackson, the HCA's area manager for Devon and Somerset, says the project highlights the agency's emerging roles in enabling enterprise and making the most of public land assets.

Jackson adds: "The positive thing for us is that the scheme is driven by local people for local people." He believes the experience offers lessons for other areas looking to exercise the Community Right to Build that will allow them to approve developments without the need for specific planning applications. "They need to ensure their priorities are clear so everyone can work around obstacles," he says.

Hobbs warns, however, that it will be hard to replicate the High Bickington model elsewhere. "We wouldn't close our minds to repeating what has been done here, but it would have to hit high priority outcomes for us," he says. "Its success is down to opportunity, leadership and tenacity. That combination doesn't readily arise everywhere."

But he feels that the project reflects government aspirations for councils to catalyse community action. "The three councils have worked well together," he says. "But this scheme could have been defeated by the weight of the planning process. We must make it more navigable. It will be interesting to see if the Government delivers on its promise to trust communities to make their own calls."

Second opinion - Dominic Houston, Senior associate, Roger Tym & Partners, Exeter

Q: How successfully will the development fit into the village and what benefits does it offer?
A: A traffic-free lane provides access into the village centre and this should encourage new residents to walk to local services. Having a mix of workspace and affordable and open-market housing is good and the homes being created from refurbished barns are spacious. The resulting rise in population should boost the viability of village services. A new primary school would be a major benefit in educational terms and may produce significant high-value jobs in an area with few alternative sources of employment. I'm interested to see what the trust will do with its plans for other sites, such as the existing school, if the new school is built.

Q: What do you think of the scheme in terms of design, layout and sustainable development?
A: The tone is set by the standard suburban design of neighbouring properties. The promoters have played it fairly safe rather than trying to increase densities and use more exciting designs. Ideally there would be more employment space so that more residents can work on-site, but the cost of that would almost certainly jeopardise the scheme's viability. It is unfortunate that noise limits were put on the workshops after the design was finalised. Anything that constrains their occupancy will reduce the rents that can be charged.

Q: How vital was public sector support for this project and is it likely to be replicated elsewhere?
A: Devon County Council and the Homes & Communities Agency have been laudably generous in their support. The council could easily have sold the farm as agricultural land or a development opportunity for a private company. But I can't see how other public bodies could be so open-handed now due to tighter budgets. Urban areas of Devon are likely to a higher priority for public funding because councils would get a bigger bang for their buck. Devon would be a better place with more schemes like this one, but there would be a big price tag attached. Such projects tend to be driven by opportunity rather than strategy. Here, the opportunity was presented by the land, the funding and the local people involved. There will be villages where people can't get all those things lined up.

Q: What does this scheme have to offer as a model for community regeneration in other rural areas?
A: I can see how the principles could be applied to various places. If a land trust has no assets, or no way of realising the assets it has, it needs an initial leg-up to get it going. If you have money to spend, people will talk to you and get involved. If you don't, you're just left with nice ideas.

Q: What lessons for putting the localism agenda into practice can be drawn from this experience?
A: The parish council could look at putting the parish plan on a statutory footing if that is seen as advantageous under the Localism Bill's proposals, but in practice locally generated plans are already treated as material evidence. The standout fact is that a quarter of residents are trust members, which suggests a huge community buy-in. Also, there were only 19 objections to the planning application. Those numbers are very important in the context that some people fear that the localism agenda may result in an increase in nimbyism. The project shows that people's concerns are almost entirely answered when consultation is done properly.

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