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RESPONSE TO A PAPER PRESENTED BY CLLR BOB BROOKES AT THE COUNCIL MEETING ON 25TH APRIL 2022

Background

* On 20 October 2016, the then Town Clerk wrote to Wychavon District Council applying “formally for a designated Neighbourhood Plan being the relevant body to take this project forward”. The Town Clerk added: “Please note the preparation of the Neighbourhood Plan will be undertaken on behalf of the Town Council by the Neighbourhood Plan Community Group being set up by Councillor Richard Morris.

* Wychavon approved the application on 11 January 2017. Government guidance states that the Town Council is then responsible for neighbourhood planning. In addition, the town council “should work with other members of the community who are interested in, or affected by, the neighbourhood planning proposals to allow them to play an active role in preparing a neighbourhood plan”.

* On 14 December 2020 the Town Council resolved to establish “a (politically balanced) working group of Councillors to facilitate increased and focused activity from the Neighbourhood Planning Group. The Council group will meet when required to sign off and authorise action plans for any activities proposed by the NHP group”. This was further endorsed by the Town Council on 25 January 2021 to follow a proposed meeting with Wychavon District Council. This working group of Councillors has never been established

1 Funding Application

The paper by Cllr Bob Brookes at the Council meeting on the 25th April 2022 says: “The DSNPWG (Droitwich Spa Neighbourhood Plan Working Group) have previously indicated they wish to apply for funding to facilitate progress”.

The responsibility for applying for funding to prepare a neighbourhood plan lies entirely within the Town Council and not any other body. Indeed the paper says:

* The required Locality application process that must be followed was previously explained by our Town Clerk to members of the group at a (Zoom) meeting on 22 February 2021.

Yet 14 months on there is little evidence the Town Clerk / Town Council has yet started the process of making an application.

The paper does go on to say:

* I have requested this (a costed action plan) from the DSNPWG on many occasions so that I could present it to council for approval for Town Clerk to implement and move things on.

It is not the responsibility of any grouping other than the Town Council – although indicative costs and timescales have been developed by the working group and were available to the Town Council.

Under Professional Advice the paper says: We are working with professional guidance towards finalising a detailed, costed plan to bring before council as soon as possible. Furthermore under Brief Overview of Professional Consultant’s Advice, 1. Requirements the paper says: “DSTC is also aware that it is the responsible body for all matters including finances”.

The position, as it has always has been, is that without grant funding there will be no neighbourhood plan. An application for grant funding is the responsibility of the Town Council who must be the applicant.

2. Group Membership

The paper starts by saying: “As I have previously tried to explain, the Planning Process and DSTC’s involvement with it must be open and transparent”. It is considered that the paper makes a fundamental mistake in equating the preparation of a Neighbourhood Plan to a Planning Application. This is comparable to saying that because Council Tax and Corporation Tax are both taxes, the rules and regulations governing them are identical.

A Neighbourhood Plan is akin to the SWDP (South Worcestershire Development Plan) where any individual can attend and contribute to consultation meetings and groups can make representations without identifying all the individual members of the group. However, when a proposed structure is established then membership of that group does need to be formally recognised.

If the paper’s contention is right, then no councillor can be involved in the preparation of a Neighbourhood Plan without compromising the regulations governing predetermination.

3 Group Member eligibility

The paper says: “Without a list of members, it is impossible to verify that all involved are residents of Droitwich Spa or qualify for other reasons as is appropriate when producing policies”.

It should be noted that in preparing a neighbourhood plan the town council should work with other members of the community who are interested in, or affected by, the neighbourhood planning proposals to allow them to play an active role in preparing a neighbourhood plan. There are many people living within the hinterland of Droitwich who will be greatly affected by proposals related to, for example, retail, educational, medical, leisure and transport facilities.

The final step of the neighbourhood plan process is a referendum confined to the electors of Droitwich Spa (excluding some areas generally considered to be part of the town) but it is reasonable for electors to be confident that the plan presented for approval optimises the opportunities for all those who not only live and work within the town but also dependent on the facilities within it. Furthermore it would be very short sighted of any authority to ignore expertise or specialist knowledge available to it on the grounds individuals live a short distance outside its boundary.

4. Role of Group

This section of the paper appears to exemplify the muddled thinking of the Town Council. The fundamental issue is that the Town Council is responsible for any Neighbourhood Plan but has an obligation to engage with interested parties in the community. Unless and until the Town Council establishes a structure for taking a Neighbourhood Plan forward, either the one it proposed over a year ago or an alternative, then no individual or group is obligated to restrict activities designed to take the process forward.

5. The Group Website

As with Role of the Group above, there is no obligation, other than constrained by law, to restrict valid comments on the website until the Town Council implements a formal structure for taking the process forward.

The paper says the Town Council has taken the decision “to simply pause work until the SWDP Review and the Town Centre Prospectus are published”. At the present time there has been no structure put in place by the Town Council to make progress despite it being some 5½ years since the initial letter to Wychavon and approaching 1½ years since the Town Council itself proposed a mechanism which so far it has failed to implement.

The paper accuses members of the working group of becoming a “political lobby group”. This is indeed a correct assessment as we can all campaign to promote a particular cause. It would not be correct if the word “party” was included such that it was a “party political lobby group”. From our perception every effort has been made to segregate the promotion of a Neighbourhood Plan from any political manoeuvring.

The reality is that the Town Council is considered to be dragging its feet over this matter and therefore those wishing to move more speedily will almost inevitably been seen by the retardants as having differing objectives. The paper’s perception is incorrect in that those Neighbourhood Plan enthusiasts wanted to continue making a positive contribution but that is dependent on the Town Council establishing a workable structure.

6. Nolan Principles

The paper says: “Therefore, all members of the steering group need to have regards to these”. We entirely agree once a steering group or similar is established. The problem again is that the Town Council has so far failed to establish the necessary mechanisms.

To paraphrase, quoting Nolan in defence of a flawed position is the last refuge of a scoundrel. There has been little leadership demonstrated by the author of the paper or by the Leader of the Town Council. It can also be argued other Nolan principles have been breached in several respects. For example, the paper under consideration was only circulated in hard copy to many members of the council and the public present just minutes before the meeting started. It was not placed on the council’s website at the time, nor subsequently, and was therefore not accessible to any interested members of the public.

7. Constructive Suggestions

The paper comments about “only two individuals from the group for whom I have been given contact details”. It is entirely appropriate that all comments from this or any group should be made through nominated spokesmen – two in this instance. The title of this section assumes one person sees something as constructive although someone else from a differing perspective sees the opposite. For example, several years ago Malvern Hills District Council published a newsletter “Views from the Hills”. Those in the rural wards saw the “Views of the Hills” in an entirely different manner, with the District Council administration eventually paying the price.

8. Options to complete the Plan

The Town Council is responsible for producing the Neighbourhood Plan. It has failed to establish the structure it proposed nearly 1½ years ago and yet it attempts to blame disingenuously a community group for its failure. Of course the Town Council can change the structure it has proposed, especially if the earlier one is flawed. But whatever mechanism is selected, the Town Council is committed by both the terms of its initial application and the national requirements of neighbourhood planning to ensure it works with the wider community.

The danger is that having destroyed the dedication of an important section of the community, it can be very difficult to get the required commitment to produce the best possible plan for the town.

9. Professional Advice

What is the cost of the advice being sought? What advice is being provided that was not available locally either from Wychavon DC, government agencies or the wider community?

Nevertheless whatever is agreed will have to be consistent with the initial submission to undertake a Neighbourhood Plan through working with the wider community of those with an interest in its proposals.

Brief Review of Professional Consultant’s Advice

1 Requirements

This has been covered earlier where it has always been recognised that the responsibility of a Neighbourhood Plan lies with the Town Council.

2 Size of task

There are several towns the size of Droitwich that have already adopted a Neighbourhood Plan so there is a wide experience to draw upon. Everyone will have a vote in the referendum and the end of the stage. But does everyone need to help produce and approve a manifesto? Turnout at Council elections is around 33% of the electorate so a response circulated to all residents may be limited to the level but conceivably be lower.

Yet others have approved referendums whilst Droitwich is still thinking about a two or three year process (at least). Droitwich should avoid reinventing the wheel and draw upon the experience of other authorities.

3 Scope and Policy Options

Droitwich may be considered fortunate that it is now largely developed. There is however the former Baxendale site and surrounds where at least one plan suggested 800 dwellings. There is also benefit in re-emphasising the current boundaries, ie the M5 to east, greenbelt to the north and south and open countryside to the west.

However, planning is not just about numbers of dwellings but also density, design, layout, infrastructure etc. One comment from the survey carried out by the volunteer group was garages are being built too small to accommodate the average car, even if the resident chose to garage it, whilst estate roads are too narrow leading drivers to park on the footpaths.

4 SWDPR

The issues here are common to all towns and villages undertaking a Neighbourhood Plan. This section may be seen as a smoke-screen and even an attempt to pre-empt a Neighbourhood Plan. However, Government guidance appears clear that there is no constraint on developing a Neighbourhood Plan at the time of the Local Plan and indeed there may well be benefit. Furthermore an adopted Neighbourhood Plan can take precedence over the Local Plan, witness the recent example in Bredon.

5 Possible Policies to consider.

We are not sure how there can be a “consensus” with just one professional. 

We recall one Town Councillor being concerned that the ownership of part of the Lido Park could one day bring its status under threat. Is all the land along Pulley Lane in public ownership? There is concern the the existing landscape land between current housing and the lane boundary could be built on in the future to a wider detriment. It has not been unknown for school playing fields to be sold for development as has other land under public ownership.

6 Financial Implications of postponing work on the NP

A presentation made to Wychavon DC some months ago on the proposals for Droitwich Town Centre contained very little, if anything, that was not consistent with the resident survey conducted by the Neighbourhood Plan working group. There is obvious benefit in incorporating the work of other projects although this does not preclude additional, generally minor, aspects – a hypothetical example being wider parking bays in the car park or additional specific cycle racks.

It is observed that the Town Council displays characteristics of “not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time”. A Neighbourhood Plan should be expected to pull in contributions from a wide range of sources.

The paper says: “It is anticipated that delaying work, as DSTC did, will enable considerable saving over the original estimates, for our council-tax payers”. The only considerable savings to be made will be over the figure of £100,000 that the town council initially suggested, but the foundation for this figure had no solid base.

A Neighbourhood Plan can be developed for about £20,000 and at little or no cost to residents provided a grant can be secured. Securing a grant has to be the priority or else there will be little or no chance of Droitwich ever having a Neighbourhood Plan.

7. Next Stage

Watch with interest to see whether the Town Council is able to make the necessary progress under the current management. However fundamental changes in the way the Town Council operates are considered necessary if a Neighbourhood Plan for Droitwich is ever to reach the referendum stage.