When the previous newsletter was published in May, the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Committee had passed a copy of the plan toAylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) informally and requested comment. From discussions with our point of contact, we expected they would require only a few minor tweaks to our draft Plan before it was ready for the first formal stage towards approval –pre-submission circulation. As it turned out, they requested a considerable number of detailed changes.
Despite the work involved, the draft was updated by in mid-Juneand sent out on pre-submission consultation. This involved giving everyone in Stewkleyparish a chance to comment, either on-line or by hard copy in the Village Hall, along with some 45 ‘statutory consultees’, including national bodies like Natural England, all manner of utility companies, and local bodies such as Bucks County Council and AVDC.
In all we received around 130 comments and are required to respond to every one of them, either making a change to the Plan or justifying why we have not done so. Most of these comments are relatively straightforward, but the one that is causing us the most concern, because it strikes at the very heart of our Plan, is a new comment from AVDC. Formal consultation of course engages the Council more widely and at more senior levels, but we had not expected anything so radical.
The issue is technical and complicated and, in our view open to interpretation, so we are seeking an independent view from an expert who comes highly recommended.
What follows explains the issue as clearly as we can. The law (the National Planning Policy Framework –NPPF) requiresthat, to confer effective protection, a neighbourhood plan‘contains policies and allocationsto meet its identified housing requirement’. If there are no allocations (note the plural)there is no effective protection at neighbourhood level!
The identified housing requirement should be defined in AVDC’s development plan (known as the Vale of Aylesbury Local Plan, or VALP) which is advanced but has not been finalised. In 2013 VALP allocated 151 new homes to be built in Stewkley by 2033, so we duly identified sites that could accommodate that number, including Cricketers Close and Soulbury Road where development was already planned. More recently, the VALP was updated and Stewkley’s allocation was reduced to 101, which is exactly the number of new homes thathave planning permission, some already built, since 2013.
In November 2017, the parish as a whole was consulted on whether we should plan for just the 101 homes identified by AVDC or 2 options for more (either 127 or 150). There was a decisive majority for more than the bare 101 with a slight majority for 150. The plan has been completed on that basis, in the expectation that this would maximise the power of our Neighbourhood Plan to protect us from unwanted development.
Now, 2 years on, AVDC arguethat our identified requirement is zero, 101 required minus101 effectively approved. They say, as we have no identified requirement, if we want more, we should produce a “Housing Need Assessment (HNA)”.Yetthey recognise that accepted tools for conducting an HNA do not work for a community as small as Stewkley.
We argue:that we do have anidentified housing need, itis 101, that plans must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to rapid change and that they are required to provide at leastthe identified need. Moreover, unless there are allocations (at least 2 sites) much of the power of the Neighbourhood Plan is lost.
Unfortunately most of our identified siteshave problems:safe access may be dependent on other landowners, on relocation of businesses or may introduce controversy of the concept of ‘linearity’. Without mature development plans from landowners, these sites could be ‘picked off’ one by one, making it likely that the Government-appointed ‘Examiner’ (the final judge in Neighbourhood Plans)would findin favour of AVDC’s views.
On the other hand, if we present the four sites at the ‘Southern Gateway’ as two sites, one west of Wing Road and one to the east, this would remove potential objections on the grounds of accessandsatisfy all the requirements of the NPPF (we believe). The landowners involved have agreed to this,so we stand a real chance of getting the Plan ‘made’ before the demise of AVDC and a potential need to engage with new faces in the future Unitary Authority. We are therefore modifying the draft plan to allocate just these 2 composite sites whilst we await the independent view of whether our interpretationor AVDC’sis more likely to sway the Examiner and allowdevelopment above the allocated 101 figure.