East Coker, Somerset: a case study of developing a good working relationship with your LPA
East Coker is a rural parish in Somerset, adjacent to Yeovil (a town of about 40,000). It’s close to Yeovil but separated by geography: there’s an escarpment between the two places.
In the 2011 census East Coker had 1,677 people. There are about 700 homes in East Coker plus a small primary school, part-time shop, hall, pavilion and recreation ground. It has Grade 1 agricultural land and farming is important to the parish. It’s also well known for its heritage, with Grade 1 listed buildings, a Roman Villa, links with TS Eliot and picturesque, thatched cottages, and has much wildlife.
Developing a good working relationship with the LPA
1. Drawing up a memorandum of understanding
One of the initial drivers for the neighbourhood plan was the impact of the draft local plan produced by the local planning authority (LPA) (core strategy as then was) which proposed an extension of Yeovil into East Coker of up to 5,000 homes. There was much local objection to this, with the parish council and the East Coker Preservation Trust fighting the strategy. Local people felt that a neighbourhood plan would give them the opportunity to shape the development of East Coker.
The history of concern over the local plan initially made it hard to establish a good relationship with the LPA. But things are now very different. In April 2013, with the support of Stuart Todd, the Locality consultant supporting the steering group, the group drew up a memorandum of understanding (MoU) (pdf) with the LPA.
The MoU is a high level document focusing on process issues and “rules of engagement”. It doesn’t go into details about the neighbourhood plan itself, but includes:
- Roles and responsibilities
- Reviewing the MoU
- Map showing the NP area (appendix)
- Terms of reference for the East Coker NP steering group (appendix)
The key section is “roles and responsibilities” which sets out the different tasks that each party (East Coker Parish Council, Each Coker NP steering group and South Somerset District Council) will carry out:
- The parish council section summarises its role as “relevant body” under the neighbourhood planning regulations.
- The LPA section covers the support that it will provide.
- The steering group section covers the tasks the group will need to do to deliver the plan: community engagement, project management, liaison, communication, plan production, consultation etc.
This helpful structure means tasks and responsibilities are obvious from the start. All three parties are now working together on the neighbourhood plan, with clear remits and mutual understanding.
Following on from the MoU a system of “key contacts” has been set up. Kath Wilson, steering group chair and also parish councillor, is the main contact for the group who keeps in touch regularly with a key contact at the LPA. This is helping to maintain good communications.
The MoU has been presented to councillors at district executive meetings and Kath has been asked to talk to some councillors about neighbourhood planning as they recognise she knows more about it than they do!
2. Keeping the momentum going
In Jan 2013 the application for the neighbourhood area designation was submitted to the LPA. The group felt that this would be a straightforward procedure and was expecting to hear the result in about three months.
In September 2013 the application for the neighbourhood area designation finally made it to the District Executive of the LPA who agreed and accepted it. Prior to that, the process had been protracted through the LPA committees. The delay was very disheartening for the group, who felt they weren’t making progress and risked losing momentum.
So, how did the group keep going? During spring 2013 some members diverted their energies into responding to the local plan. (The inspector found that the draft plan had weaknesses and so the LPA suspended the process for six months and made modifications). Other members used the time to prepare a questionnaire for the whole parish and plan a neighbourhood plan launch event, delivered successfully in October 2013.
The questionnaire was delivered the same weekend as the launch event. Taking as a starting point a questionnaire used in 2008 for the production of a parish plan, so comparisons could be made, it asked about:
- The respondent
- Likes/dislikes about East Coker
- Development and housing need
- Transport issues
- Young people (need for facilities etc.)
Kath notes that, on reflection, the survey was quite long and perhaps this is why not everyone filled it in. However the group was encouraged by its response rate of 20%.
Using this time to prepare for the questionnaire and event gave the group something to focus on and meant that as soon as the designation was through they were able to spring into action.
- Build a good working relationship with your LPA
- Set up an MoU covering roles and responsibilities
- Ask for help from others and apply for help and funding where available
- Remember it’s going to take time – so you need to be in it for the long haul
- Make sure you keep positive! Don’t be put off by changes to the planning system.
- Use as many ways as possible to let people know about your plan: online, newsletters, noticeboards, signs and banners, leaflets…
- Be creative! East Coker had postcards made for their launch event, and likes/dislikes hanging on washing lines.
- Go out to existing groups to tell them about the plan: offer to hold surgeries
- Remember the aim is for the neighbourhood plan to be helpful to local people and have a place in community life.
These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality.
The first three photos in this case study are used with kind permission of John Snelling, Studio Elite Photography