Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The only way in the village…

Politeness is the poison of collaboration.

It probably feels, at the moment, reading this blog, that – especially with regards to the nascent Neighbourhood Plan – I’m behaving like a rabid dog with an exhausted, broken bone, devoid of all taste, clenched between my yellowing fangs. But this is because, when I believe in something or someone, I won’t, and don’t, let go – not until my objectives are achieved.

I have never really conformed with the throng; nor its expectations of me. Neither have I been willing to hold my tongue, and simply obey unquestionable orders; or have respect for unearned authority and important titles (which I suppose makes me a bit of a ragged trousered anarchist; and I know makes me a lot of a pain in the asinine…). And these attitudes are amplified when it is such a strong, sincere, unshakeable belief that drives me: in this case, that our three hamlets – as a conglomeration of the wisdom and experience of all their residents, past and present – are extremely special; and will remain so, if all of those now living here are allowed to play a starring rôle in its future – “a sustainable and successful future, for a place which is clearly very special to the people who live and work there.”

But I am also convinced (and concerned) that, if such representation is merely paid lip-service to, and we are relegated to unidentifiable extras, just making up numbers in blurry, background crowd scenes, the outlook will not be anywhere near as rosy: as it will be governed (dictated) by the limited ideas and agendas of a very tiny minority, with no regard for identity, individualism, innovation, community, or collaboration (those qualities that have so moulded the generous spirit of the place we live in and cherish – and for a very long time…).

If people work together in an open way with porous boundaries – that is, if they listen to each other and really talk to each other – then they are bound to trade ideas that are mutual to each other and be influenced by each other. That mutual influence and open system of working creates collaboration.

Even if, as at the moment, there are many of us in the parish that feel our opinions, our needs and desires, are being ignored by those who – with a similar (but ill-founded, unjustified and amoral) stubbornness – refuse to listen (and take note(s)): I know there will come a time when we can, should, indeed must, stand up and be counted. (Not that I’m saying you should wait until then….) After all, the process that has currently been (in my ever so ’umble opinion) taken hostage – however much cynicism you may hold for the Government’s ‘big society’ gibberish, and its laughable attitude to localism – that of Neighbourhood Planning – actually has quite a lot of democracy built into it.

And I’m not just talking about the referendum that must take place in the parish before the Neighbourhood Plan comes into force… –

The draft plans and orders must pass an independent check (providing, of course, that Stratford-on-Avon District Council recommends that the plan should go forward to this “examination stage”). If they pass the independent check, they must then be put to a local referendum. If the majority of those who vote are in favour the local planning authority must adopt the plan….

But this “stage” is, thankfully, not just some dry, bureaucratic process (and we will all be brightly lit up and delineated by its footlights). Although the Neighbourhood Plan “must have regard to national policies and conform to local strategic policies”, the examination also provides an opportunity for all concerned to submit their opinions, objections, support… – similar to the way that you can comment on any application for planning permission (which the Neighbourhood Plan sort of is – just on a grander scale) – within a defined six-week period.

Generally examinations will be by written representations rather than by public hearing. However, the examiner can call a public hearing on two grounds:
  • To examine a key issue in more depth; or
  • To ensure a person has a fair chance to put a case forward.
If there is a public hearing, the examiner will decide the format. For example, how questions are to be posed to another individual and the time allowed for questioning. All the questioning will be done by the examiner. The cost of holding a public hearing remains the responsibility of [the council].

In August 2013, the fourth neighbourhood plan – Tattenhall and District’s – was ‘passed’ with the scrutiny of such an examiner – whose report contains the following:

I was informed during the Hearing of the extent of the significant and sustained collaborative working between the Council and the Neighbourhood Plan-makers. Cheshire West and Chester Council held membership of the Steering Group established by the Parish Council and I note that the officer support this provided “went over and above the call of duty” and was of huge benefit to the Neighbourhood Plan. I consider this collaborative approach to be exemplary. It sets a helpful precedent for other neighbourhood plan-makers. Such effective joint working is to the great benefit of plan-making and is to be welcomed.

Surely that, as well as being common-sense, this is the best practice we should be following?

Later on, the examiner describes how that Neighbourhood Plan was put together, stating that…

Building effective community engagement into the plan-making process encourages public participation and raises awareness and understanding of the plan’s scope and limitations.
     Robust, sustained and comprehensive public consultation can provide the foundations for a successful neighbourhood plan. It forms part of the evidence base. Successful consultation can also create a sense of public ownership, achieve consensus and provide the foundations for a successful ‘Yes’ vote at Referendum….
     Commencing in Summer 2011, the Neighbourhood Plan underwent several stages of consultation, prior to the formal, publicity stage, six week consultation period (3 June 2013 to 19 July). These can be broken down into:
  • Raising awareness (Summer 2011)
  • Pre-vision consultation (Autumn 2011)
  • Vision and objectives consultation (Summer 2012)
  • Draft neighbourhood plan consultation (Winter 2012)
I have considered the various stages of consultation undertaken prior to and during preparation of the Neighbourhood Plan, with particular regard to content, openness and transparency.

…and it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that the points I keep making about an ideal form of collaboration are both practicable and – more fundamentally – deemed important (if not necessary) by those we have to legally satisfy, if our Neighbourhood Plan is to have meaning and standing.

Public Consultation: Raising Awareness
I note that the Parish Council and Neighbourhood Planning Steering Group attended a number of public events to raise awareness of the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan. People were given the opportunity to show where they lived and provide comments about the area. I find that the wide range of events – including a Beer Festival and a Garden Fete – provided for significant advanced publicity and the approach encouraged public involvement from an early stage.

Public Consultation: Pre-Vision
Five public open meetings were held at three venues…. This provided the opportunity for people to attend meetings in different parts of the Parish, as well as providing for more than one opportunity to attend.
     The associated publicity was comprehensive, with invitations sent to every household and widespread public notices. Notably, the invitations included a summary about neighbourhood planning, together with general information about the Parish. I consider that this enabled people to attend the meetings on an informed basis and provided an advanced starting point, thus helping make the most of the meeting time available.
     Discussion at the meetings was focused around questions relating to what people liked and disliked about the area and how, or whether, they would like to see the area evolve, change and/or improve in the future….
     Young people, especially teenagers, can be hard to engage in the planning process. The Parish Council and Steering Group recognised and sought to address this by adopting a highly innovative approach. They hosted a ‘rave,’ with attendees required to fill in a questionnaire prior to entry. The rave was very well attended and… demonstrated the pro-active approach and significant efforts made by the Parish Council and Steering Group to go beyond the legislative requirements for public consultation….
     The scale of response demonstrates the interest in and success of this stage of the consultation. In this way, the results of the consultation provided a significant input into and helped steer the content of, the draft Neighbourhood Plan, providing compelling evidence of its community-driven foundations.

Public Consultation: Draft Neighbourhood Plan
A copy of the draft Neighbourhood Plan was issued to every household in the Parish and to businesses…. Five neighbouring Parish Councils were also provided with copies and the draft Neighbourhood Plan was available to view on the Parish Council website. Over one hundred formal responses to the draft Neighbourhood Plan were received. The Parish Council and Steering Group demonstrated how these were taken into account to improve the form, content and structure of the Neighbourhood Plan. Taking this and all of the previous stages into account, there is plenty of evidence to show that the consultation process was comprehensive and conducted in an open and transparent manner from start to finish, with lots of opportunities for engagement, involvement and feedback.

Public Consultation: Range and Type of Consultees
Effective public consultation should encourage the views of as wide a range of people affected by the proposals as possible. In this regard, it was appropriate for consultation on the Neighbourhood Plan to focus on people living within the neighbourhood area. Tattenhall and District Parish Council has demonstrated that it did as much as it reasonably could to raise local awareness and to encourage people to get involved in the plan-making process. There is evidence that, as well as the views of local residents, input has been encouraged, from the earliest stage, from other interested parties including local businesses. There is no evidence of the Parish Council precluding anyone from the consultation process. The views of younger people, especially harder to reach groups, were actively sought. The involvement of the local school and the successful ‘rave’ were highly commendable approaches to community engagement and provide good examples for other neighbourhood planning groups to consider. It is apparent that the Parish Council and Steering Group went to a lot of effort to encourage participation in public consultation from a wide range of people, to the overall benefit of the Neighbourhood Plan.

Public Consultation – Summary
Given its fundamental importance to neighbourhood planning, I have scrutinised the public consultation process. There is no evidence of any dissatisfaction with the consultation process throughout the two year plan-making period. I am satisfied that the Neighbourhood Plan not only meets its statutory obligations, but exceeds them. Consequently, the Neighbourhood Plan is a community-driven document demonstrates an excellent approach to public consultation in neighbourhood planning.

I really don’t know what else to say… – except that I truly believe that this is just about the only way an area can – should – successfully develop a successful Neighbourhood Plan. Please, Tysoe, take note. For all our sakes.

Breaking good
I have been told, by Mike ‘Tew’ Sanderson, that the planning inspector in charge of the Gladman inquiry has put back his decision date, whilst he reviews the latest five-year housing supply report from Stratford-on-Avon District Council. Watch this space!

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