Kirdford: a case study about Neighbourhood Plan examination
The Kirdford Neighbourhood Plan is one of the most comprehensive brought forward so far, addressing housing, economic growth, conservation and general social well being within the Plan Area. It went to examination in January 2014 and passed referendum in May 2014, with a 44% turnout (one of the highest so far) and 95% of voters voting “yes”.
Janet Cheesley, who examined the Kirdford Neighbourhood Plan, is on the NPIERS panel and went through the examiner training in March 2013. Kirdford was the first examination she’d been put forward for and she welcomed the possibility of doing the examination.
Preparing for the examination
In practical terms, the Kirdford Parish NDP (KPNDP) Steering Group prepared by reviewing all the documents required and making sure they were all available, and participating in the examiner selection according to the standard process.
However, the group had also prepared for examination by re-working their draft policies (with the help of a planning consultant) to keep the intent but make sure they were worded correctly. They also separated out non-land use planning issues into an Action Plan. The final plan was structured with its inter-connecting evidence, policies and projects so as to provide a clear vision for the future of Kirdford and how that would be delivered.
The examiner selection process
Janet Cheesley feels that the selection process is very straightforward when using the NPIERS panel. All examiners on the panel have been trained and the panel has their CVs and details of experience to hand. The process is:
- The Panel matches suitable potential examiners and asks three examiners if they want to be put forward to the LPA for them to choose an examiner.
- The examiners decide whether they would like to be put forward and, if yes, their CVs are sent to the LPA.
- The LPA, with input from the NP group, selects an examiner.
Josef Ransley, Chair, KPNDP Steering Group noted that it was very helpful to see the CVs of the three potential examiners and that, as time passes, and more examinations are done, this will also help as groups will be able to see how examiners write their reports, for example.
Advice, information and help prior to examination
The LPA sent Janet a plan of the area and a letter confirming designation of the neighbourhood plan area. She then looked at the Kirdford Parish Council website to see the documents related to the NP before being appointed. This was a clear and helpful website. The information was helpful and gave enough detail to be able to say whether or not she would like to be put forward as one of the three possible examiners.
From the group’s point of view, valuable help was received from Alex Munro (Maroon Planning) in writing the plan, and from Planning Aid England in explaining the examination process, the basic conditions and exactly what the group needed to do to comply with them. This advice was particularly helpful as Kirdford was one of the earlier groups to go through the process, and they found the Neighbourhood Planning regulations to be written in “legalese” which needed translating!
After the examiner had been selected, an informal meeting was held with the group and representatives from the LPA and PAE so that some issues and concerns could be resolved. It focused on how to proceed with the examination. The LPA and NP group discussed some of the policies in the plan and whether to proceed with the examination, but Janet was not present for these as it was not appropriate for her, as examiner, to be involved in this way.
Once the issues were resolved all parties moved on to agreeing what material the examiner would need to see. The Kirdford group had drafted a schedule of what they thought she would need and the LPA had also brought paper documents. The LPA and the group agreed a list which was prepared and sent to Janet.
The examination: how it went
Janet notes that there was a lot of information provided but it was relatively easy to find what was needed. The basic conditions statement is important and should clearly demonstrate how the basic conditions have been met.
She decided the evidence provided was sufficient, so there was no need to hold a hearing to clarify or question it. She informed the group, via the LPA, as soon as she could of this decision (it’s not possible, of course, to decide at the start, as you need to go through the whole plan before you can make a decision!).
During this time there was not much the group could do other than wait to hear what was happening. The group would have welcomed a hearing, but understood the decision. The group kept in touch with the LPA to find out whether they had received the examiner’s report.
Issues to be resolved
The plan had evolved from a community-led plan and there were some discrepancies which needed to be addressed before it could provide a practical framework to ensure compliance with the NPPF. (This is about meeting the basic conditions). For example, there were discrepancies in the housing numbers in different chapters.
So Janet made recommendations for modifications which would remove these inconsistencies and produce a more user-friendly plan. She also recommended modifications to some policies where there was no robust and credible evidence to support these specific policies. It is not the role of the examiner to re-write the plan, only to consider whether the plan meets the basic conditions.
The examiner’s report
Janet approached writing the examiner’s report in a systematic way, going through the plan from beginning to end. However, she did group related policies and any comments on them together (e.g. all the housing policies together). The report was sent to the LPA.
Josef reports that overall, the group was very pleased with the report. They felt it supported what they aspired to achieve through their plan. The group felt that, of the recommendations for changes to be made, only two were major: there was felt to be insufficient evidence for the live-work policies (comments on policy H4, p14 of the examiner’s report) and for prioritising housing provision for elderly people (comments on policy H2, p12 of the examiner’s report).
Other changes were felt to be relatively minor or would not affect the plan to a significant degree. For example, the group had worked hard to show that their plan had a “common thread” running through it, for example by showing inter-linked sites on schematic layouts. (The use of images was to help the community visualise what the plan was aiming to achieve.) The examiner advised that they should keep the schematics but they should be located within the description of the policy intent, not the actual policy wording. The group would have liked to look at ways to re-word and strengthen their policies, however the LPA advised that the examiner’s recommendations should be taken forward as written. (A Local Authority is not bound to take on board the examiner’s recommendations, but in this case they decided to agree to Janet’s suggested recommendations in full.)
The group was able to feed back to the community about the examiner’s report, and after a couple of months the referendum went ahead with a large majority vote in favour of the plan. Janet notes that it is excellent news that the Kirdford NP was so well supported in its referendum, even though it was amended to take into account her recommended modifications.
From the group:
- Work in collaboration with your LPA. Be clear about your community’s aspirations but tap into the LPA’s knowledge and experience of writing and administering planning policy.
- Involve the community throughout, and keep them informed
- Be prepared to put in the time and effort required to prepare your plan and get it ready for examination
From the examiner (this is general advice based on the three examinations Janet has done and is not specific to Kirdford):
- Make sure you provide local justification for all your policies
- This local evidence can be quite detailed and at a local level, specific to the Neighbourhood Area
- In your basic conditions statement refer to the evidence and why it’s there – make it as clear as possible
- When writing site specific policies, don’t go into too much detail and remember the lifespan of your plan
- Don’t be put off by the examination process! It is not there to catch you out. Rather than taking a negative view, the examiner will, wherever possible, recommend modifications to ensure that the plan meets the basic conditions.
Many thanks to Josef Ransley, Chair, KPNDP Steering Group and Janet Cheesley 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.
- Kirdford Village stores © Copyright Basher Eyre and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
- Central Kirdford, Bourne Meadows near Kirdford and Story of Kirdford © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
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