West Hoathly Neighbourhood Plan: a case study about getting your neighbourhood plan on the right track
West Hoathly lies in a rural part of West Sussex, surrounded by AONB. It has a population of about 2,000 living in 800 households. Recent census data shows that this is an aging population, and local residents are aware that there is little “churn” with respect to households.
Rather than having one village centre, West Hoathly has two settlements within 1km of each other plus satellite settlements. A heavily used “C” road runs through both main settlements and also carries through traffic from the south east to Crawley and Gatwick. There is minimal public transport, and most residents drive or walk from one settlement to another.
Why a neighbourhood plan?
West Hoathly has seen virtually no development for 30 years and those homes that do come onto the market are often in the higher price ranges. Residents noted that smaller, affordable and lower cost housing was in very short supply. As well as this, there was a risk that the village would soon have no local shopping facilities and the school was struggling with low numbers. Residents did not want to lose these vital facilities and saw neighbourhood planning as a way to bring in development that would be appropriate for the village, and help maintain long term sustainability (e.g. if new families moved into new homes, the school numbers would increase; if smaller homes were available, some local residents might be able to downsize thus freeing up their larger home for a family).
In 2009 residents had made some progress on a Village Plan, which had started to identify some key local issues and possible solutions. It was felt these could provide some useful background to a neighbourhood plan. Also, the local planning authority, Mid Sussex District Council, had taken a proactive approach to neighbourhood planning and was encouraging parishes to produce plans.
Production of the neighbourhood plan was driven by West Hoathly Parish Council, who made an early application for Front Runner grant funding in October 2011. This was successful, as was the application to designate the neighbourhood area. In early 2012 a session took place with the local planning authority to share knowledge.
The Parish Council decided not to have a formal “neighbourhood plan committee” to lead on the production of the neighbourhood plan, and that any meetings held should be workshops open to anyone who wanted to attend. It was hoped that this would lead to an inclusive way of working and maximise the opportunities for local residents to get involved. A loose series of workshops was held in the first part of 2012 for parish councillors and residents, which aimed to hone in on local people’s concerns, priorities and wishes for how the area should look in 20yrs time.
One issue that became quickly apparent was that some local residents were quite comfortable with the way things were, and did not see a pressing need for change. There was therefore a risk that people would not engage with the neighbourhood planning process and the Parish Council felt it needed to “push” people into getting more involved. So, in April they produced a survey booklet for every household summarising the issues from the workshops, and seeking feedback and comments. They received 241 responses and over 700 individual comments. They also set up the Hoathly Hub microsite as a useful, one-stop-shop for all the information about the plan.
Housing needs and call for sites
Encouraged by the response rate to the survey, the next steps were to start gathering evidence and shaping policies. In July 2012 Action in Rural Sussex were commissioned to carry out a housing needs survey (pdf), and the Parish Council put out a call for sites to local landowners and those on the SHLAA. One response was received, proposing one site for housing. Also in summer 2012, the Parish Council produced a Sustainability Appraisal Scoping Report (pdf).
The Parish Council continued work on drafting the plan and in April 2013 issued a draft for local consultation. This draft included the one site as a location for housing, and it was at this stage that the stumbling blocks started to emerge. Residents in the area of the site were unhappy with its inclusion – why was it the only possibility listed? What about the impact on them (e.g. in terms of traffic)? They started a petition, which rapidly generated wider support.
Those involved with producing the plan note that they learned valuable lessons from this, which they would encourage other groups to be aware of:
- They felt that, with hindsight, they should have been even more “pushy” with the call for sites, e.g. contacting additional landowners or making follow up requests to those who didn’t reply
- They should have used the search for possible sites as a catalyst to get more people involved in the plan and aware of what they were doing
To get the plan back on track, it was decided to have another call for sites and re-do that part of the plan completely. And actually, the petition and concerns raised turned out to be helpful because they succeeded in generating interest from landowners to the extent that, by the end of 2013, 13 sites had been put forward!
Site selection and assessment
The increase in sites put forward meant that a more rigorous approach to site selection was required. It was decided to put together a task group – a core group of 10-12 people who could focus on the site selection process and come up with a transparent and fair way of working out which sites would go into the neighbourhood plan. They decided to hold an open meeting where each landowner could put forward their site and their suggestion for how many homes it could provide. The meeting worked like this:
- Each speaker was given a 10 minute slot
- All speakers were given the same few introductory questions
- There were then specific questions about each site
- 5 minutes were then set aside for questions from the floor
This worked very well and attracted about 100 attendees. The group would advise anyone thinking of holding a similar event to be very clear about how it will work in advance, and keep control of the timings throughout.
As part of this work (in first quarter of 2014) the local planning authority was asked to perform site assessment on each of the 13 sites. The information from this was displayed in a general exhibition with a sheet for comments by each site. The task group then took all the comments away to see if they contained new information or raised issues not previously considered.
An independent planning consultant was brought in to work with the task group on site assessment and SEA, based on the 2012 Sustainability Appraisal Scoping Report. He brought work back to the task group for discussion and agreement. The Parish Council remained the final decision maker.
Producing the second draft plan
With the plan back on track, and consultant support in place, a second draft was ready for community consultation in spring 2014. The task group and the Parish Council were very keen that the plan process was as open and transparent as possible, and that there could be no risk of people saying they hadn’t been consulted about the plan, its contents and its sites (now three in number). Consultation was done through:
- Posting a copy of the draft plan to every household
- Holding an exhibition
- Using the Hoathly Hub as an online forum for comments where people could see what comments had been made (the Hub is a website for the whole village, and is well used)
- Making sure that the Hub was kept regularly up to date and monitored for any questions raised so that they could be answered in full
- Using the parish newsletter, social media and existing email newsletters to let people know what was happening
Throughout the summer, the plan was revised to reflect comments from the consultation process and the policies were “tested” by local planning authority officers, who could then advise on wording. The second draft plan (pdf) contained three sites that have been included following the site selection and assessment process: one was the original site (but with fewer houses) plus two new sites. It has turned out that these are all in the same settlement, which is another reason for making it clear that a robust selection process has been followed.
Examination and referendum
The West Hoathly Neighbourhood Plan passed examination in January 2015 (pdf), with the examiner recommending it proceed to referendum with modifications. The examiner noted:
“I am satisfied that the production of the Neighbourhood Plan was supported by robust public consultation. It is clear that the views of the wider community were actively sought and taken into account during the production of the Neighbourhood Plan.”
On 26 March 2015 the West Hoathly Neighbourhood Plan went to referendum. Community support for the plan was demonstrated by a 74% yes vote. (Further details from Mid Sussex District Council.) Following this success at referendum, the final step will be for the plan to be "made" by the local planning authority.
- Making sure the community understood the plan and what was proposed was really important for West Hoathly. They would advise other groups to make sure that information produced is clear, easy to understand and jargon free.
- If your group is in receipt of a grant, be very clear about what it will be spent on. Think about how you can use a grant to keep your plan on track (e.g. West Hoathly used theirs for their consultant, producing and mailing out documents, buying exhibition boards and producing the housing needs assessment. They also used it to pay for some of the Parish Clerk’s time*).
- Remember you will need to explain things more than once – be prepared to keep engaging and consulting with people to keep the momentum going.
* Please note that under the new NP grants programme it’s not possible to bid for money to pay for this.
Many thanks to Helen Schofield, Parish Clerk, and John Downe, West Hoathly Neighbourhood Plan, 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 West Hoathly Parish Council