Woodcote: how robust project management can help deliver a Neighbourhood Plan

Background

geograph_2830144_by_Des_BlenkinsoppWoodcote is one of the larger villages of South Oxfordshire, lying north west of Reading and within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB). Woodcote has excellent communication links. It’s 3.5 miles from Goring and Streatley train station (with regular fast trains to London) and has a regular bus service to Wallingford and Oxford.

In line with national trends, Woodcote has experienced an increase in its older population. It’s seen a 26% increase in people aged over 60 living in the village over the last ten years, and this is set to increase further. Woodcote has proportionally a larger number of four bedroom houses, and a smaller amount of social housing, than the national average. It’s seen a reduction in the size of household, coupled with a rise in the number of households, with a parallel reduction in the general population.

Getting the right structure

An Advisory Group of 15 was set up in autumn 2011 to take the plan forward. They felt this was the right number of people, as too many would make any decision making difficult, but too few would make it hard to get the work done and would not be representative of the village.

The Advisory Group ran separately from the Parish Council, but fed back progress regularly to the Parish. Six sub-groups were set up to work on different goals and aspects of the plan. A separate Communication Group was formed to oversee community engagement and collate the information relating to the consultation.

Setting a target date

The Group decided to set a target date at the outset, and they found this was helpful for focusing everyone’s mind and maintaining momentum. April 2013’s Annual General Parish Council Meeting was chosen as the date when the Parish Council would agree the final Draft Plan (before it was published for its final public consultation then submitted to the council for final checking and examination by an Independent Examiner).

Developing a programme plan: the “road map”

Once the target date was agreed, a programme plan was worked backwards, identifying tasks, activities and timescales. This was encapsulated in a “road map” (pdf), a diagram which showed how the group would progress the plan. The “road map”:

  • gave clarity to the process
  • helped maintain motivation and move the plan forward
  • ensured everyone working on the plan understood the goals and key targets.

The “road map” enabled the planning process to be divided up into smaller chunks of work, and agreed how and when these would come together to form the different documents that were needed for the Neighbourhood Plan. The Consultation tasks, on which the Communication Group led, were included within the “road map”.

Coping with delays

The Advisory Group appreciated that any programme should have flexibility built in to allow for unexpected events, such as key members of the group leaving and holiday times. It understood that work on the plan is done on a voluntary basis, people have busy lives and with the best will in the world deadlines may be missed.

The Advisory Group also found that the consultation process and the setting up of the examination and referendum took much longer than anticipated. It took 18 months to get the plan to the pre-submission stage, and a further 12 months to get to the referendum stage.

Managing the work required

Don’t underestimate the administrative work required to put a plan together. Woodcote found that much of the administrative work was associated with the community consultation and events. So:

  • Each public consultation event (in March 2012 and April 2013) had around 400 attendees
  • The first event produced 223 completed questionnaires
  • The second produced 272 completed questionnaires
  • Each of the questionnaires had to be read and noted
  • 214 responses were received to the post submission document
  • These 214 responses made over 500 comments
  • Each of these comments had to be recorded and assessed in terms of any action to be taken.

This was a mammoth and time-consuming task, which the Advisory Group had to approach in a logical manner. This is what they did:

  • Each comment was logged on an Excel spreadsheet and coded to link it to the specific section or policy of the Plan.
  • The comments were then sorted by the code to bring all comments on a particular section or policy together for processing.
  • The spreadsheet was then divided up between the Advisory Group members.
  • Each member assessed comments and marked them with a predetermined assessment: "NCR" no change required; "NCR/OPS" outside the scope of the plan; "NCR/PAC" comment specific to planning application submissions; "CR" change required and what that change should be.
  • Members met and quickly double-checked each assessment.
  • The Neighbourhood Plan was then amended appropriately.

This kind of activity requires a robust administrative arrangement to be in place. It’s important to be able to quickly and effectively assess information, respond and finally justify changes to the plan before it’s submitted to the Local Authority prior to examination.

Managing the evidence base

It’s essential to create a robust evidence base for your Neighbourhood Plan. The Advisory Group aimed to give the community the opportunity to express their views, but also needed a process to use these views to inform the production of the plan. This was done by:

  • Distilling views into as general a consensus as possible
  • Developing a policy response
  • Testing the proposed policies in the community
  • When agreed (to a significant/sufficient extent), managing the process to deliver them for the community.

The Advisory Group understood that, above all, the Examiner is testing compliance to process, including consultation, and the regulations (NPPF, Core Strategy, Sustainable development and European regulations). The evidence base must justify the direction taken within the Plan.

geograph_1007902_by_Graham_HornThe group obtained evidence from different sources such as:

  • Information from the previous village appraisals, the Parish Plan, questionnaires and feedback from the village consultation events
  • Local knowledge (e.g. known traffic hot spots) was tested at open meetings with the community

They also found helpful information available from other stakeholders:

  • reports already compiled by South Oxfordshire District Council (e.g. a landscape evaluation, housing needs report)
  • Census data from the ONS
  • flood information from the Environment Agency.

Top tips

  • Think about how your advisory group will operate – roles, tasks and numbers
  • Set target dates for key parts of your Plan
  • Draw up a programme plan to help you keep on track
  • Be realistic about the work involved and allocate enough time
  • Have a robust approach to capturing and analysing information
  • Build a budget – as a cross check on your Plan and its affordability
  • Document decisions as you go along

Photo credits

Many thanks to Geoff Botting, chair of the Woodcote Neighbourhood Plan Advisory Group, and his interviewer PAE volunteer Debbie Jones for their help with this case study. 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.