May 7 was a significant day for a group of businesses, community groups and residents in Milton Keynes who had collaborated on a development strategy for their town centre. On that day, their Central Milton Keynes (CMK) Business Neighbourhood Plan passed two borough-wide referenda by a huge majority.
This business-led neighbourhood plan is the first of its kind in the UK. It differs from a traditional neighbourhood plan because business - representatives must be involved in its development, and a referendum on it must be held for residents and businesses locally. The referendum covered the entire council area, rather than just the neighbourhood concerned, after the examiner suggested that this would help boost the plan’s legitimacy.
The resident vote saw 89,801 people – 84 per cent of the turnout – vote ‘yes’, while the business referendum garnered 356 votes – 88 per cent of those who voted – for the plan, which sets out a vision for how the area will grow over the next ten to 15 years. CMK Town Council, the parish-level council that led the plan’s development, expressed its delight.
On 10 June, the plan was adopted, or ‘made’, by Milton Keynes Council, the unitary council for the borough, which incorporated it into its statutory development plan. But on the day the referenda were held, the borough council received an outline planning application for the Intu Milton Keynes shopping centre extension, which seeks to add 11,000 square metres of floorspace. When the borough approved the scheme on 3 September, the town council’s excitement turned to disappointment.
The town council says the shopping centre extension is in direct conflict with the neighbourhood plan, which designates part of the mall site as a semi-open space – an area protected against any development if this leads to a "reduction in quantity, quality and usefulness" of such space. But the borough planners who recommended the project for approval reported they "have formed a different interpretation" of this policy.
They said "on balance, the reduction in quantity of semi-public space is outweighed by significant -improvements to the quality of the space, which in turn is likely to increase the use and public enjoyment of it". And even if members considered the proposal to be contrary to the semi-open space policy, the report added, "the broader benefits of the scheme and its conformity with the strategic policies in the local plan, core strategy and -National Planning Policy Framework would outweigh any conflict with it".
The town council also argues that the shopping centre extension contradicts another neighbourhood plan policy which protects "classic CMK infrastructure", such as its tree-lined boulevards, unless circumstances are exceptional. It protests that the enlargement will build over boulevards and other classic CMK infrastructure. While borough planning officers admit that the development would lead to the "loss of small areas designated as classic CMK infrastructure". They argue that this would be outweighed by the "improvements to the public realm".
Town council adviser David Lock, the founder of consultancy David Lock Associates, says the permission resulted from the council giving insufficient weight to the neighbourhood plan which, once made, should have the same legal status as the local plan. By ignoring specific policies in the neighbourhood plan, the borough went against "up-to date expression of local opinion", he says. Town council chair Dr Rebecca Kurth says the -borough has been "pushing this neighbourhood plan aside".
The stakes rose higher on 17 November, when communities secretary Greg Clark called in Intu’s application, saying he would examine its "consistency with the development plan for the area, -including the Central Milton Keynes Business Neighbourhood Plan". Developers Intu warned that the call-in "will delay our proposed investment in new shops, restaurants, leisure and local jobs". Kurth says: "This was the first major test of MK Council’s willingness to give due weight to the new business neighbourhood plan for Central Milton Keynes and in our view they failed."
The borough council argues that "full weight had been attached to the business neighbourhood plan as the most up-to-date document in the development plan", but that "when determining planning applications, consideration should be given to the development plan as a whole" and that "it was concluded that the proposal was in accordance with the development plan that included the business neighbourhood plan".
There are mixed views on the dispute among neighbourhood planning commentators. Chris Bowden, director at consultant Navigus Planning, which advises community groups on planning, says neighbourhood plan policies that try to -prevent development "are going to be tricky, particularly within a built-up area like Milton Keynes".
But, Shabana Anwar, partner at lawyers Bircham Dyson Bell, says paragraph 198 of national Planning Practice Guidance is clear that "where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted". However, Bowden says that to imagine that neighbourhood planners gain complete control when their plan is adopted is too "black and white".
He adds: "Planning is all about the shades of grey." Another consultant who advises on neighbourhood plans, Tony Burton, says he "can sympathise with the town council’s position" and predicts that "this will become a recurring issue". T
The fact that the application was called in "puts a shot across the bows of local authorities which are not inclined to attach the importance they should to neighbourhood plans", he says. However, Andy Shepley, associate director at WYG, argues that the borough did not "disregard the plan, but chose to interpret it in a different way".
Anwar concludes: "Whatever decision Greg Clark takes, he will be watched by local authorities and neighbourhood planning groups because, we hope, it will give some guidance on how to resolve these kind of issues".
Two recent secretary of state decisions regarding neighbourhood plan weight
111-home development in a Leicestershire village blocked
In April 2014, Eric Pickles rejected an application to build 111 homes, a sports hall, and a neighbourhood centre on a 14-hectare greenfield site in Broughton Astley, between Hinkley and Leicester [DCS Number 200-002-001]. In doing so, he particularly highlighted the application’s conflict with the recently adopted Broughton Astley neighbourhood plan, in which the site was not one of those earmarked for housing development. Pickles’ decision was backed by the High Court on appeal by developer Ivan Crane in February this year.
39-home scheme in Northamptonshire village approved
Last month, communities secretary Greg Clark approved plans for 39 homes on an agricultural site on the edge of Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, despite conflict with an emerging neighbourhood plan.
Clark wrote that the conflict should be given "significant weight in view of the particularly advanced stage that the plan has reached and the evident high degree of local support for it".
But he added that the plan is "not yet made and therefore does not carry full statutory weight".
On the same day that Clark’s decision letter was issued, the referendum was held and the plan was approved.