Residents of the Cheshire town of Middlewich last week became the third area of the country to reject a neighbourhood plan in a referendum. After five years of preparation led by the town council, the Middlewich neighbourhood plan hit the buffers after a ‘no’ campaign triumphed by a narrow majority of just 22 votes.
With 14,000 people, Middlewich is by far the biggest settlement so far to vote against a neighbourhood plan. The strategy, which passed examination in January, promoted the regeneration of the historic town centre and identified sites for the 1,950 homes allocated to the town by the Cheshire East local plan.
The vote followed a "hate filled" and personal party political campaign, according to Bernice Walmsley, chair of the neighbourhood plan steering group and a town councillor representing the independent Middlewich First party. She said much of the plan was not contentious, but complained that the plan’s critics did not engage in the discussions during the plan’s preparation.
The opposition was led by the town council’s three Labour councillors. Mike Hunter, one of the Labour councillors, said the neighbourhood plan steering group had not taken the town’s residents with them. He adds that the steering group "did not listen" to the Labour councillor’s suggested plan amendments. Hunter claimed the plan steering group was dominated by councillors belonging to the Middlewich First party.
The town is currently embroiled in elections for the town council in May and if it gains a majority, Hunter said the Labour group has promised to set up a separate neighbourhood forum to revise the plan. He said some of the plan’s policies, including one on development in the town’s canal"corridor", needed to be "tightened up". Hunter said the Labour councillors also wanted a commitment for new infrastructure, particularly a new bypass, to be provided in advance of any new development. Walmsley argued that the plan’s critics did not understand the neighbourhood plan’s limited scope. "We should have done more to educate residents particularly that we have to take forward the housing allocation figures set in the local plan," she suggested. Town council clerk Jonathan Williams pointed out that the plan’s examiner was satisfied with the amount of consultation undertaken by the steering group, but he concedes that more could have been done to raise awareness of the plan. In a statement, Cheshire East Council said it "provided consultancy support to the group in the early phases of the plan-making process and has provided appropriate support and advice throughout".
Gary Kirk, a neighbourhood plan examiner and managing director of consultancy Your Locale, said the Middlewich experience, is a warning shot for those preparing neighbourhood plans in urban areas. "With a large population, it is important that the body preparing the neighbourhood plan constantly seeks to widen engagement," he said. "Otherwise, there is a danger that the plan will become a political football," he warned.
"In areas where neighbourhood plans have been drawn up, the politicians have set aside party differences and reached out to the wider community," said neighbourhood planning consultant Tony Burton. Stephen Tapper, the Planning Officers Society’s neighbourhood planning spokesman suggested it would have helped if theMiddlewich FirstGroup had worked with the Labour Party councillors, he said.
Chris Bowden, director at neighbourhood planning consultancy Navigus Planning, observed that politicians, particularly in urban areas, will "inevitably" get involved in neighbourhood plan preparation but this risks the plan becoming too politicised. "The steering group needs to engage with them but ensure that their voices are not given excessive weight, as they work with communities."
"If, at some point, the neighbourhood plan’s preparation is meeting opposition and isn’t engaging well with the community, a steering group needs to decide to abandon the exercise or change track," said neighbourhood planning consultant Neil Homer. "They clearly ploughed on regardless, although it might have been better if they’d gone back to the drawing board."