Duston: a case study of getting started with your neighbourhood plan

Background

Duston_3Duston, in Northamptonshire, is busy and thriving and has a population of about 15,000. It has good facilities including a senior school rated outstanding by Ofsted, good primary schools, Mums and Tots group and community centres.

The housing is varied, from old Northamptonshire stone cottages to new modern houses. The main road is about a mile long and acts as an artery through the village. At the west end of the Neighbourhood Plan area is the village centre.

In the area designated for the Neighbourhood Plan, there a few spaces to develop. However there is a wish for more affordable housing which it is hoped the Neighbourhood Planning process can deliver.

Getting a structure that works

The Parish Council (PC) is the lead body for the Neighbourhood Plan. Frances Jones, who’s relatively new to the PC and is very involved in the Neighbourhood Plan group, describes how it all started. As Neighbourhood Planning was new for everyone, this was actually an advantage: as Frances says “we we’re all starting off on a level footing”.

The Neighbourhood Plan group has a mix of parish councillors and non-councillors so there is a balance. Rather than always operating as one big group, it’s evolved to become six options and issues topic groups, each topic group led by a parish councillor:Duston_1

  • Infrastructure, Community Facilities and Services
  • Open/Green spaces and recreation
  • Heritage, Conservation and the Built Environment
  • Householder extensions and building design
  • Business
  • Traffic and transport

Members join groups according to their interests and experience. There’s also a meeting once a month where each topic group reports back to the whole group. The group is supported by the parish council’s administrative assistant, who organises the meetings and does the minutes.

Making sure you know what you’re doing!

Frances feels that a very important point is to be clear about what a Neighbourhood Plan is, and can do, before you get started. The Duston group had training (organised by their Parish Executive Officer) early on and this was very useful as everyone had their own preconceptions about what they could do with a neighbourhood plan. Group members also attended a training event organised by Planning Aid England and a Planning Camp, which were very informative.

Communicating what your group is doing

The Duston group has set up its own online group on ourneighbourhoodplanning.org.uk which anyone from Duston can join. It’s a space for sharing ideas, documents and links. Each topic group has a discussion forum thread as part of the online group so people can focus on a specific area if they wish.

The online group acts as a way of communicating ideas and progress to those not so directly involved in the plan but who want to keep up to date. It also means that discussions can be held (or at least read by) anyone who joins the Duston group, which is more transparent than having private email conversations.

Developing a good relationship with your LPA

Developing good links and a strong working relationship with Northampton Borough Council (NBC) officers has been important. Frances reports that officers have given advice and support, and brought in experts when required, and that this ongoing support has made a real difference. “Being able to ask NBC officers technical questions about neighbourhood planning is a great help.” Also, building on from its involvement in Neighbourhood Planning, the group has had good discussions with officers about the Local Plan and what it will involve.

Creating a vision for your Neighbourhood Plan

Creating a vision for your plan is an important process to go through, advises Frances. The Duston group have done this initially in workshops followed by online forum discussions. Then drafting and seeking further community views.

Duston_2The group is writing a “Vision statement” which will explain what they are trying to achieve through the plan by explaining what Duston will be like in the future. The Vision Statement will explain WHAT they are trying to achieve but NOT how they will get there. The steps they will go through to achieve the vision will be set out through “Objectives”, and these objectives will in turn be addressed through planning policies.

The group has been advised by their LPA that a good vision does not have to be very long (e.g. half a side of A4) but will:

1. Be long term, for example looking forward 15, 20 or 25 years, or the period that is covered by the Local Plan (2029).
2. Be strategic, setting out a broad picture of your aspirations for your neighbourhood but will not include lots of details.
3. Describe what you want your neighbourhood to look like, so people can form an image of the homes, businesses, shops, community facilities and open space it will contain.
4. Consider what land use and development challenges will need to be addressed over the period covered by your Neighbourhood Plan.

Engaging with the community

This is something that needs to be done as part of the “getting started” process, rather than added on once the plan has been partly written, as it should be an integral part of your plan. As Frances says “We don’t want to be in the position, come referendum, of someone saying they’ve never heard about it. It’s important to remember that people will be voting on the plan at the end, so getting them involved early should help to ensure they’re fully informed”.

Some of the engagement and promotional activities that have taken place so far are:

Duston_4
  • Visiting all the community groups who use the community centres
  • Holding a “community day” in June 2013. People could sign up to find out more about the Neighbourhood Plan.
  • Using the newsletter which goes to all households (about 7,000)
  • Online forum and group
  • Adding a reminder about the NP in the “no cold callers” stickers mailing (sent to all households)
  • Writing articles in “In and around Duston” magazine
  • Using existing communications as much as possible
  • “Tell your friends and neighbours” – encouraging word of mouth
  • Organising an exhibition in February 2014 (on two days, one at each community centre)

Future activities include planning more involvement with schools and maintaining links with community groups.

Keeping on top of things

It’s important to keep the momentum going with regular meetings, good communication and lots of contact with local people. But you also need to have a project plan: Duston uses a project plan sheet provided by the council which is very helpful for keeping everything on track.

“It can be disheartening, for example when you meet people who don’t seem to know the plan is happening or think that you’re not doing anything. You can feel like a swan gliding along with your feet paddling away frantically underneath. So you need to keep motivated and keep going!” advises Frances.

Top tips

  • Make sure you know what a Neighbourhood Plan can and can’t do before you get stuck in.
  • Get Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc up and running early. Think about who in your area might use them and what you might want to use social media for.
  • Make sure people know what’s happening
  • Have a project plan.
  • Develop a good working relationship with your local planning authority.
  • Remember you’re volunteers – other things will come up! Work around people’s commitments – family, Christmas etc.
  • Remember it can’t be rushed – it has to be right.

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.