Why we cut the size of a proposed neighbourhood planning area

Wycombe District Council's head of planning and sustainability Jerry Unsworth explains why the local authority decided to reduce - rather than accept - a proposed neighbourhood area.

High Wycombe: neighbourhood area changed. dumbledad pic
High Wycombe: neighbourhood area changed. dumbledad pic

How do you decide the boundary of a "neighbourhood" for neighbourhood planning purposes? How do you strike the right balance between fostering localism and ensuring neighbourhood planning is timely and has an appropriate sphere of influence? And how do you manage the expectations of stakeholders so they don't see neighbourhood planning as a panacea for grievances - especially when the government is pressing local planning authorities to embrace growth and speed up decision-making?

These are all questions the Localism Act raises, but, seemingly, does not answer. In Buckinghamshire, Wycombe District Council has been steering a tricky neighbourhood planning application for Daws Hill, a suburban part of High Wycombe, through these uncharted waters.

In September, this culminated with the council designating a neighbourhood forum and area in response to applications by the Daws Hill Residents' Association. But there was extensive and, at times, tense debate leading up to this decision.

The council had to decide the most appropriate area for the neighbourhood to plan for. What made this particularly tricky was that the residents' group wanted to include two sites that adjoin the existing residential suburb but on which plans of district-wide significance had reached an advanced stage.

The first site currently houses the district's ageing sports centre. An application has been submitted for development including a new sports centre and a commercial scheme on this land. The second site is a former RAF base sold last year to housebuilder Taylor Wimpey. This land is currently the site making the largest contribution to our five-year housing supply. The developer is entering the final design stage before submitting an application.

With green belt and other protected land tight around the town, making best use of sites like this is central to the "brownfield first" policy in our adopted core strategy.

While wanting to support neighbourhood-level planning, the council had to balance the group's desire to prepare a neighbourhood plan for the "live" sites with its duties as planning authority, including negotiating "positively and proactively with applicants" now.

With a neighbourhood plan probably taking a year to complete its stages and with no certain outcome until after an examination and a referendum, the council decided it couldn't wait. We were concerned that work - and financial outlay - on the plan would be overtaken by planning decisions, with greater frustration for all concerned.

As a result, our cabinet modified the neighbourhood plan area to exclude the two strategic sites. In parallel, it also approved a district council development brief for the ex-RAF site, amended to reflect input from local residents. This built on community engagement work.

This has not gone down well with the residents' group, whose expectations were understandably raised by the localism agenda. In the lead up to the council decision, both the residents' group and the council took legal advice as the paucity of government guidance left much to interpretation. The indications are that the residents' association is contemplating a judicial review of the council's decision.

This may be the first time that a council has decided to reduce - rather than accept - a proposed neighbourhood area. But the decision was backed by Suzanne Ornsby QC, who advised us that the discretion given to councils to consider whether or not neighbourhood areas are appropriate "is a wide one". She added that the council had taken all relevant factors into account and that the decision was "not irrational".

The government has provided the powers and left us to decide how to use them locally. But I wonder how much thought was given to situations like the one we have faced?

Editor's note: We invited the residents' association to contribute a piece setting out its views on the neighbourhood planning process, but the offer was declined.

Jerry Unsworth Head of planning and sustainability, Wycombe District Council.

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