When floodwaters two metres high swept through Cockermouth one night in November 2009, they left a trail of devastation in the Cumbrian market town. Some 80 per cent of businesses were affected, particularly in the town centre conservation area.
Restoration work was needed on listed buildings, leading to frustration as businesses waited while applications went through the planning system. Since then, Cockermouth Town Council and Allerdale Borough Council have sought to turn round the town’s fortunes through a neighbourhood development order (NDO).
NDOs were introduced in the Localism Act 2011 to give residents a greater say in the planning process by allowing specified types of development without the need for planning permission.
Cockermouth became one of 17 "front runners" to pilot the mechanism. Last month, the town made history as the first to secure a public vote in favour of its NDO. On a turnout of 19.3 per cent, a referendum saw 772 votes in favour of the proposed NDO and 496 against.
The NDO comprises four separate deregulatory measures. The first allows commercial properties in the historic Market Place to convert into cafés, bars and restaurants. The second allows conversion of the upper floors of commercial properties on two town centre streets into a maximum of four flats, while a third allows traditional timber shopfronts to be installed without permission in these same two streets. Five other residential streets can have timber sliding windows and doors without planning permission.
Responsibility for organising the referendum fell to the borough council. It identified all those eligible to vote and their addresses, printed polling cards and organised polling stations and poll clerks. Together with the town council, it produced and published a leaflet explaining the NDO and its aims, how the referendum worked and how to vote. This was sent to every household in the town. The poll was flagged up on the council’s website. Newspapers and social media sites Facebook and Twitter were used to boost publicity.
Sheila Brown, town clerk at Cockermouth Town Council, says: "It was a three-year process from start to finish, so we did lots of publicity." Brown predicted a turnout of 15 to 20 per cent, so she was very happy with the outcome.
As one of the towns selected to pilot NDOs, Cockermouth won a grant of £20,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which helped pay for the poll and marketing. But Brown admits: "It was difficult being a front runner. We made mistakes early on, which delayed us."
One such mistake was that the NDO team believed it could formulate four separate NDOs to implement the various measures. The government’s rule is one only. "The risk was that if someone didn’t like one of the measures, they would vote against the whole lot," says Brown. It also made phrasing the question that people were voting on tricky. Some voters complained that the question was confusing.
Another challenge was dealing with the overlap between the planning and electoral elements of the referendum. Steve Robinson, senior planning officer at Allerdale Borough Council, says the authority’s planning and electoral services teams worked together to ensure everyone knew who was in charge of each task and what joint input would be required.
Robinson says the process highlighted the need to take time to think about what neighbourhood issues to address, and then decide whether to use an NDO or a neighbourhood plan. NDOs are best to resolve specific problems while plans are more appropriate for broader issues, he says.
"In Cockermouth, it was all aimed at supporting the town centre and the more direct influence of an NDO was considered the best route. But I would argue that NDOs are the more technical of the two options. Therefore, they require a high degree of planning input and take longer to draft," he advises.