Walton Neighbourhood Plan: a case study about developing a good working relationship with your LPA

Background

WALTONNP_MASTER_LOGO__COLOUR_Walton is a small, rural village on the edge of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The 2011 census found that Walton had 3,231 residents living in 1,387 households. In the lush, green countryside it acts as a service centre with shops, a post office, community centre and other facilities and is also a hub for walking, cycling and fishing. You can read more about the village on the Walton Neighbourhood Plan website

Why a neighbourhood plan?

Prior to neighbourhood planning, there had been a desire to do a parish plan for Walton, which at that time was the only mechanism available to set out the village’s aspirations for the future. However, once neighbourhood planning was introduced this changed, as it was clear that a neighbourhood plan would have real weight and would offer the community to come together and actually form the plan themselves. Walton Parish Council also hoped the neighbourhood planning process would help identify a list of items and projects that were important to the community. They would then be able direct any surplus funds from the precept to those activities (where possible, as the budget is tight).

Also at this time, an action group was formed around the issue of proposed development on a site in Walton. Rather than just opposing the proposals, the group worked with the developer to get a more suitable proposal for the site which was subsequently approved by councillors at the local authority planning committee meeting. This example acted as another incentive to become involved in neighbourhood planning, because people saw that they could influence future development in their area.

The Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group understood their LPA’s strategic policy framework and site allocations policies, so the main aim of the neighbourhood plan was to pull together the community’s aspirations for where future development would go, how facilities could be improved and businesses sustained. This was in addition to safeguarding heritage assets, green space and local character. While the local planning authority has not yet implemented the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) the group was aware of the implications of CIL being applied in an area covered by a neighbourhood plan.

Building a strong working relationship with the local planning authority (LPA)

Walton_Gala_webWhen the Walton group started work on their plan, there were no other neighbourhood plans in the Wakefield area, so it was a learning curve for both the group and the LPA. The group sent a prospectus to the LPA asking how the LPA could help them with their plan, and suggesting ways. The LPA’s response was that they could offer officer time and this is how it worked:

  • One LPA planning officer became the key contact for the group, able to pull in other staff if required
  • That officer attended steering group meetings and the group really welcomed her flexibility, as she was able to attend when they met in the evenings
  • On the group’s side, the chair was the main contact for LPA liaison, with a second contact kept in the loop
  • The officer was kept fully informed of the group’s progress and in turn engaged throughout
  • The officer helped the group understand the local authority’s systems and structures, co-ordinating and signposting where required.

The group welcomed this relationship with the LPA and felt that they had “been with us 100%” and that their liaison officer had gone “above and beyond” in offering support. They would recommend this approach to others.

The established working relationship also helped when it came to the details of policy writing. The group and the LPA did not always agree over the policies in draft stage, but the response from the LPA was constructive, explaining why a particular draft policy would not work and how it could be improved. At the same time, the group felt that they wanted to share drafts with the LPA and wanted to avoid a situation where there were “nasty surprises” for the LPA, seeing a policy for the first time at an advanced stage of the plan.

Advice and expertise

The Walton group also found the LPA’s advice on SA and habitats assessment helpful, as the group were initially unsure whether these were needed. The LPA clarified this and wanted to do these to ensure a rigorous and transparent process was followed.

The LPA also assisted the group around SEA. The group acknowledge that some topics are easier for members to engage with than others – for example, they found it easier to see how schools engagement work fitted in with their visioning for the plan than to understand straight away the practicalities around SEA. LPA help made a real difference here as they could explain a technical topic, a topic that had caused “eyes to glaze over” initially!

In both these examples Walton felt the advantages of using the LPA as a sounding board. The LPA also worked with Planning Aid England (PAE) who were supporting the group under the SCNP programme, for example, when the group was writing policy they had detailed discussions with the LPA, PAE and the group to really dissect the issues and share knowledge.

The Walton group realise that they are in a fortunate position as they have a policy framework in place and are not dealing with controversial issues in their plan. However, they still needed a plan which is robust and has been reviewed and analysed as it has been produced, and the relationship with the LPA has been key to this.

Top tips

Walton_group_webTop tips from Walton on developing a good working relationship with your LPA:

  • Make sure you understand your LPA’s strategic planning framework and policies (in Walton’s case, they already did but your group may be different) – talk to your LPA at the start of your neighbourhood planning journey as they will be able to clarify this for you.
  • Contact the LPA as soon as you can when starting your neighbourhood plan – see how they can best help and listen to their suggestions for how they can get involved. They may be able to give you the name of a specific officer who will act as your liaison point (as in Walton’s case).
  • Decide who from your group will be the main contact with the LPA and stick to that, to help build a good level of communication.
  • Listen to the LPA’s advice on policy writing as they are the ones who will be using the policies to make decisions.
  • If your group is uncertain about how to deal with technical planning matters (e.g. SEA) contact your LPA for advice. You need to engage your community in your neighbourhood plan and they are likely to find these issues equally difficult to understand at first.

The Walton group has also provided their “top tips” for the neighbourhood planning process as a whole:

  • Timelines and milestones are really important for your neighbourhood planning group – they will help you keep on track. There is a risk that a group can only progress at the pace of its slowest member, so be as clear as possible about the process you’re following and what needs to be done when.
  • Think about how you can use social media throughout the neighbourhood planning process to keep the community informed. Who will be responsible for this and what types of social media are right for your area?
  • The consistency of the Walton steering group really helped spread the word throughout the community about the plan and its progress. With good attendance at meetings, steering group members were well placed to answer any questions about what was happening and update their own contacts.
  • Make sure you agree how your steering group are going to communicate with each other, for example, agree who will be copied in to which emails. Walton found keeping on top of emails was an essential requirement for steering group members and had a core group of six people (including the LPA and PAE contacts) copied in to everything. Phone calls were also used for important issues.
  • When working on your basic conditions statement and consultation statement, look at existing examples to see how you can communicate this important information clearly and correctly.

Many thanks to Helen Massey MRICS, Walton Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group Chair and Walton Parish Councillor, and David Rolinson MRTPI, Walton Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group Deputy Chair, 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.

Photo credits

© All photos are copyright Walton Parish Council