How we did it: Trebling homes target with town plan

Extensive public engagement helped win support for an ambitious neighbourhood plan, says John Geoghegan.

Neighbourhood plan-makers (left to right): Newport Pagnell Town Council clerk Shar Roselman with planning committee chair Phil Winsor and residents Alan Mills and Ian Carman
Neighbourhood plan-makers (left to right): Newport Pagnell Town Council clerk Shar Roselman with planning committee chair Phil Winsor and residents Alan Mills and Ian Carman

Project: Newport Pagnell Neighbourhood Plan

Organisations involved: Newport Pagnell Town Council, Milton Keynes Council

A common complaint levelled at neighbourhood plans since their introduction in the 2011 Localism Act is that they can be used by ‘nimby’ residents to frustrate development. However, one neighbourhood plan in Milton Keynes is proposing delivery of more than three times as many homes than required under the local authority’s core strategy.

Far from being blocked, the Newport Pagnell Neighbourhood Plan was endorsed by 83 per cent of local voters in a referendum in May. The blueprint also won the Award for Neighbourhood Planning and the overall Editor’s Award at the 2016 Planning Awards last month. Judges said the plan "showed ambition and a careful consideration of a positive link between housing development and infrastructure provision".

The plan allocates sites for 1,400 new homes in the town by 2031, compared with about 450 earmarked for Newport Pagnell in the 2013 Milton Keynes core strategy. Shar Roselman, clerk of Newport Pagnell Town Council and a leading member of the neighbourhood plan steering group, says that the plan’s proposals to address concerns about insufficient local infrastructure, particularly a lack of school places and health facilities, were a key factor in persuading the community to accept the higher housing target.

The neighbourhood plan’s main housing allocation is for 1,280 homes at Tickford Fields on the eastern edge of the town, which would include a town centre, a primary school and a health centre. Roselman and Phil Winsor, chair of the town council’s planning committee, say the district council advised them that infrastructure benefits would only be provided if the housing allocation was sufficiently high. Roselman says: "The core strategy requirement of 450 new homes would deliver little in terms of appropriate infrastructure. But the neighbourhood plan, with its larger housing ambitions, delivers a new preschool and primary school." The larger development would bring significant improvement to road junctions around the town, she says.

The main challenge faced by the planners was persuading residents to accept the much higher housing target. To do this, she says, the town council argued that, if it opted for a smaller allocation and forsook the infrastructure, there was a danger that incremental development would end up delivering as many homes as proposed in the neighbourhood plan but without the accompanying infrastructure. Roselman says that this could have resulted in the town receiving "none of the benefits of development contributions, but all of the houses, even if these were delayed". Concerns over affordability were addressed by reserving ten per cent of the 420 affordable homes in the plan for those "with a strong local connection", Roselman says. Winsor adds that, once the plan’s propositions were explained, concerns about the higher housing target "melted away".

Central to winning people over were "copious numbers of open consultation events", says Roselman. She adds: "At some of these, we literally bribed residents in off the high street with the offer of a glass of wine." Other measures included personal invitations to every household to attend consultations, promoting the neighbourhood plan in the town council’s quarterly magazine, surveys, and even a banner across the high street.

Winsor says: "When it came to the referendum, people more or less knew what we wanted to achieve." A vital source of technical planning help, say Roselman and Winsor, was resident and retired Milton Keynes Council planner, Alan Mills. He helped write the plan with Roselman and Rachel Hogger, from Planning Aid England. He also wrote the development brief for Tickford Fields and the sustainable transport appendices.

Mills further advised the neighbourhood plan working group on selection of sites, housing targets and density levels. He says: "With my knowledge of national and local planning policies, I could advise on how the neighbourhood plan should accord with them and apply them."

The group also received support from Milton Keynes Council planning officer Sam Dix who, Mills says, attended each working group meeting and provided guidance and feedback on the draft document. In his report, examiner John Parmiter praised the town council for taking a "bold and positive approach to planning for housing growth". After a resounding ‘yes’ vote, the plan was adopted or ‘made’ by Milton Keynes Council in June.

Following their awards success, the hard work continues. Mills says: "The preparation of the plan is just the start of a process. The longer and harder part is to secure the implementation of the policies and turn them into a physical reality."

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