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rCOH Ltd has acted as consultants, assisting several parish councils to construct Neighbourhood Plans with their respective local communities. Neil Homer is the company's Planning Director. Below is his open letter to AVDC Planning Department, published on Wednesday 5th August 2015.

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AVDC Advice on Neighbourhood Planning: An Open Letter

I have returned from holiday this week and have received a number of enquiries from my neighbourhood planning clients in your district regarding your initial advice note and now the follow up note of yesterday.

You may know that rCOH is supporting a significant number of towns and parishes in
neighbourhood planning, including Winslow and Great Horwood, and 50 other local councils across southern England. Although we would still not profess to be experts in this field we are experienced in working in 30 different local planning authority areas and can draw on 18 successful examination reports, including our most recent at Cheddington.

My general view on the stance you have taken on implementing the policies of made and emerging neighbourhood plans is surprise that you appear keen to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In my professional opinion, the recent clarifications of how the NPPF should be interpreted in areas with neighbourhood plans but no up-to-date Local Plan and/or no five year housing land supply, have not changed matters in your District at all since the two appeal decisions on the edge of Winslow last year.

Like most planners involved in this policy area I was not surprised that the High Court would eventually find against the Secretary of State in decisions made leading up to the General Election that overstated the weight of draft neighbourhood plans. Although the decisions were certainly in the spirit of 'localism', especially in the eyes of local communities, the NPPF is not currently drafted to allow for such an approach and this has been clear since the Winslow and similar decisions of a year ago or more.

My reading of the 'Woodcock' and 'Crane' cases, and my comparisons of the distinctive circumstances of those cases in relation to Winslow and Great Horwood, makes me believe that your recent advice is unsound and has unnecessarily served to create a great deal of worry for my clients. Had you fully understood the implications of your initial advice and how neighbourhood planning works, you may not have had to prepare a second note.

rCOH has always advised its clients to plan positively for housing development, especially where there is no up-to-date strategic policy framework like here. It is heartening to see that the examiners of all our AVDC-based plans so far have acknowledged the importance of this approach and have had no hesitation in recommending the plans should proceed to referendum. In each case, they have been put under considerable pressure from aggrieved developer interests, most of whom have also sought to undermine the plans with early planning applications to force your hand. The Cheddington examiner is the most recent to have done so.

This point is crucial. The Winslow appeal decisions were both made by weighing the emerging (in the first case) then the made plan (in the second) against the presumption in favour of sustainable development of NPPF para 14, this having been triggered by para 49. I am sure that had the first decision (at Glebe Farm) not preceded the formal making of the Winslow plan then the Secretary of State (SoS) would not have had to overturn his Inspector's recommendation. Both the Inspector and SoS agreed on the second appeal, by which time the plan had been made. In both cases, the SoS clearly saw the provisions of the plan 'significantly and demonstrably outweighing the benefits' of the housing schemes in applying para 14. The schemes were clearly contrary to the plan's spatial strategy, as defined by the new settlement boundary and backed up by housing site allocations that will increase the housing stock of the
town by over 35% in the plan period. In neither case did AVDC seek to convince the Inspector that NPPF para 198 carried enhanced status as a key part of the argument and I would not expect you to in considering any future planning applications.

I am quite astonished that neither of your advice notes cited these Winslow cases, which are amongst the most well known nationally in providing a steer as to how neighbourhood plan policies should be framed to provide planning authorities with an effective reason to refuse housing schemes that are obviously contrary to the local communities' wishes. Why would the first planning authority, to my knowledge, to have successfully used a neighbourhood plan to defend a major housing application choose not to do so when reassuring its towns and parishes that is was genuine in its commitment to their plans?

Of course, the true test of this commitment will be the consistency with which this defence is used in your imminent planning decisions. In my view, the Great Horwood and Cheddington plans have followed an identical approach to Winslow in being positive about development and in defining settlement boundaries to direct growth to specific areas. In both cases, these spatial preferences have been assessed as technically robust in sustainability terms and have been (or will soon be) wholeheartedly endorsed by their local communities at referendum. And in both cases, the alternative sites were considered and discounted as being considerably inferior with no prospect of winning local support.

Your statement that you are 'giving careful consideration to plan policies ... prior to any recommendation being made on any relevant planning application' will be hollow if you choose to consent those housing schemes. Not only will those specific communities be absolutely entitled to consider their efforts over three years to have been a waste of time but the signal it will send to other parishes inside and beyond your district will render your 'careful consideration' meaningless.

Finally, I believe your view in the second note that neighbourhood plans carry the same weight in decision-making as your decade-old AVDLP is incorrect. Made neighbourhood plans form part of the development plan to which S38(6) applies in decision making. Even though the NPPF renders them technically out of date in housing terms until the VALP is adopted or you can demonstrate a five year housing land supply position, the Winslow decisions show that a neighbourhood plan that has adopted a positive spatial approach to planning growth will carry sufficient weight to support a refusal. The AVDLP could not perform this same role though its
saved policies on design and landscape value for example will likely be helpful, complementary reasons.

Given the extent of neighbourhood planning in Aylesbury Vale, there are arguably few other planning authorities in the country that are as exposed to getting such matters wrong and where the consequences would be so significant.

I therefore strongly urge you and your colleagues to remember that successfully examined and made neighbourhood plans are AVDC's plans and are no longer local council projects. Although communities will have a strong sense of ownership, they will rightly expect their local planning authority to apply neighbourhood plan policies as they would another development plan policy in decision-making. I would also suggest you think very carefully about how you communicate future advice in such notes as this is not the first time that these notes have led to such a reaction.

For our part, rCOH will continue to advise clients of the many benefits of preparing neighbourhood plans in your area and to convince them of the advantages of being positive about development. And, as at Winslow, we will always be happy to stand alongside AVDC in defending your decisions at planning appeals.

Neil Homer
Planning Director
rCOH Ltd

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