THERE are lesson to be learnt from the independent examiner's report on the draft Upper Eden Neighbourhood Plan, writes Brian Wilson.
As regular readers of RSN Online will know, the draft Neighbourhood Plan for Upper Eden in Cumbria was "passed" by an independent examiner in December 2012. The examiner's report has now been published and will interest other areas involved with neighbourhood planning.
The examiner concluded that, as long as some modest wording changes were made to two of the proposed Plan policies, it can now go forward to local referendum.
That result is, no doubt, a huge relief to many, not least the Ministers and civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government who legislated for neighbourhood plans. It is the first proper Neighbourhood Plan to reach the examination stage and so will inevitably be seen as something of a test case.
Whilst an earlier community plan for Dawlish in Devon was examined and failed, it was an odd case having been produced prior to the legislation and so not constituting a true Neighbourhood Plan.
Upper Eden is about as rural as England gets, so drawing lessons for rural policy is hugely tempting. That said, the Upper Eden Neighbourhood Plan can be considered unusual in some senses. One is that it covers 17 parishes and its area is a fifth of the entire Eden District. There can be few, if any, other Neighbourhood Plans in preparation at that geographic scale.
A second is that its focus is almost entirely on housing delivery, including the need for affordable homes. Some may be surprised that economic issues do not feature more. However, it makes for a relatively straightforward Neighbourhood Plan and that may not be atypical of plans coming forward from very rural communities, especially if other issues are felt to be dealt with sufficiently already in the local planning authority's Local Plan.
Then third, none of its seven policies relate to specific sites. All are more general policies which seek to manage and shape development across the Upper Eden area.
As would be expected, the core of the examiner's report is his testing of those policies to see if they are (in the jargon) "in general conformity with strategic policies" in the Eden Local Plan and that they "have regard to" national planning guidance in the shape of the National Planning Policy Framework.
Neighbourhood planning groups will also be interested to note the extent to which the examiner cites Upper Eden having evidence to support its proposed policies. Having a sound evidence base to justify policies is one lesson.
One phrase in the examiner's report seems bound to spark debate. He notes that, "It is clear to me that the reasoning behind the use of the concept of general conformity is to allow a degree of flexibility". He adds that without this the ability of Neighbourhood Plans to reflect local priorities would be lost.
At one or two points the examiner considers Upper Eden's plan to be stretching the bounds of general conformity, whilst remaining within what is reasonable. This might be interpreted as saying that Upper Eden policies would still deliver those in the Local Plan, if in a different and locally tailored way.
A further lesson may be the extent to which the examiner cites the level of local support for policies in this draft Neighbourhood Plan. That in itself has carried some weight in his assessment.
Three policies in the Upper Eden plan may hold particular interest. One relates to exception sites for affordable housing for local people. There was already a policy for these in the Local Plan, but the Neighbourhood Plan alters that by allowing exception sites away from existing settlements as long as there is no real landscape impact.
The examiner felt this was justified by the sparse nature of the area and by evidence from housing needs surveys.
Second, is a policy which aims to phase housing development over the plan period, so that growth is incremental rather than there being sudden large-scale housing development. That is an ambition of many rural communities.
Third, is a policy to try and stop a downward spiral developing in smaller settlements which are service centres. It seeks to permit some housing growth where this could make such settlements more sustainable.
The Upper Eden Neighbourhood Plan is now expected to go to referendum in early March and, if that vote is favourable, to be adopted by Eden District Council.