Ashurst Wood: a case study about site assessment
Ashurst Wood is a rural village in the High Weald AONB, in West Sussex. The nearest town is East Grinstead. The last census showed that 1,833 people live in Ashurst Wood and it has 739 homes (including a dozen new homes for local people built on a rural exception site). 191 households are single person households.
There’s a mix of ages in Ashurst Wood; overall the population tends to be slightly older than average but the village is also popular with young families whose children attend the primary school.
The parish council was keen to do a neighbourhood plan to reassess and build on the village action plan done a few years ago, to have a plan with statutory weight and to have a say over where the new homes needed would go. Although Ashurst Wood’s provisional allocation of housing in the emerging District Plan is quite low, the group understood that they could propose a higher allocation in their neighbourhood plan if this was supported by evidence.
Beginning to identify sites
The group was initially uncertain about how to tackle site assessment as part of their neighbourhood plan. They were concerned that it would be difficult to do and could cause controversy within the village.
The site assessment process that the group carried out was not just one quick exercise but went on for some months and is continuing. The aim was to involve and communicate with the community, not just to put forward a few sites that the group thought were suitable for housing development.
What they did initially:
- In May 2012, the group wrote to all the landowners included in the District Council’s SHLAA (the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment, which assesses the amount of land that could be made available for housing development), and those who had previously promoted sites, to see if they had available development sites
- The group suggested that landowners could put forward part of a site if the whole site was too large
- Local knowledge was also used to encourage any other landowners to come forward
- A consultation event was held in November 2012 to present to the community five sites which had been put forward at that point.
- At the event the group made it clear that it did not have a preferred option, but was seeking community views. It had prepared a questionnaire to help do this, which got 100 responses.
- Further invitations to put forward sites were made at the event and in Parish Council Newsletters
Feedback from this initial activity indicated that a brownfield site on the main A22 road was very popular, while another site at the end of the village, while also popular, was not in so sustainable a location, being further away from transport links.
Stepping up the site assessment
In spring 2013 a general residents’ survey was carried out and in the summer another call for sites was made. This resulted in 14 sites being put forward while a couple of the previous ones were withdrawn.
Also in summer 2013 Ashurst Wood started to receive support from Planning Aid England under the SCNP programme. The group had noted the Slaugham examiner's report (pdf) and the need for neighbourhood plans to have robust evidence for housing need. At the start of 2014, consultants URS carried out a review of Ashurst Wood’s evidence base so far and gave advice on the need for further evidence.
In February 2014, the group decided to repeat the community consultation site assessment event, looking at the 14 sites now put forward. They made it clear that:
- Where four or more houses are built, at least 30% must be affordable (draft District Plan).
- Any potential sites must be assessed for suitability and would be subject to further consultation.
- The impact of proposed sites on the AONB must be considered carefully.
Following the event group members visited each site and completed a site assessment pro forma (prepared by URS) for it. It uses parts of the SHLAA process and looks at the following criteria:
- General information about the site (location, current use, planning history etc)
- Whether the site is suitable (accessibility, proximity to AONB, available services etc)
- Whether the site is available
- What the potential is of the site for development
Using the information from the pro formas and from the community events, the group will now decide on which are the preferred sites to be taken to the community for consultation. A final list will then be compiled. At the same time, the group is continuing to liaise with the council about housing targets and drafting policies for the plan.
A grant has now been awarded under the SCNP programme. This will enable the group to engage a planning consultant to assist with further site allocations and policy writing work.
The response from villagers to the site assessment work done so far has been very positive. Local people are interested in the site assessment process and welcome having the opportunity to get their views across.
Resources you might need
The group found these resources very helpful and would advise other groups to obtain their own versions. In Ashurst Wood’s case, these were provided by the District council:
- A large (e.g. A0) map of the neighbourhood area, on which the group coloured in potential sites, to use at community events
- An electronic version of this map (pdf) to go on the neighbourhood plan website
- Further A1-sized versions of the map with potential sites marked up, once the initial assessment had been done
The group also produced and printed questionnaires. Ashurst Wood used resources from their precept to pay for this, however if your group is a Forum rather than a Parish Council you might want to apply for a grant to cover these costs.
- Keep everyone informed as much as possible so they understand what you’re doing, why and how they can be involved
- Be realistic, it can take longer than you think
- Try to find a local volunteer with project management skills who can help you keep your plan on track
- Build and maintain a good relationship with your LPA so you understand what help they can provide and can keep up to date with what’s happening (e.g. with the Local Plan)
- If volunteers are unable to commit to a steering group or ongoing work, use them for one-off tasks such as delivering questionnaires
- Take whatever help you can get, such as events, workshops or training sessions
- Read other plans and examiners’ reports
Related documents and links
AWNP housing sites page: contains information about sites that have been put forward by landowners for possible future development in the village
Many thanks to Jenny Forbes, Chair, Ashurst Wood NP steering group, for her 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.