Neighbourhood Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by Mike Shields (NPB 06)

Dear Sir,

                I have two matters which I wish to be considered as the Bill moves through its current stage. The first concerns a proposed amendment which I oppose and the second relates to the matter of the boundaries of the two referenda involved in the final stages of the preparation of a Neighbourhood Business Plan. In respect of the proposed amendment, my comments are my own, informed by the experience of Chairing the Working Group which has prepared the Neighbourhood Business Plan for Altrincham Town Centre, which was submitted to Trafford Council at the end of June, 2016. The issue of the boundaries of the two referenda is a matter which the Neighbourhood Plan Forum has considered and commented to the Council and my comments in this submission reflect the position which the Forum has taken.

               My name is Mike Shields and over the last 3 years as indicated above, I have chaired the Working Group which has prepared the Neighbourhood Business Plan (NBP) for Altrincham Town Centre (ATC). It is this experience coupled with my professional background as a Town Planner which underlies the comments below. After securing a BSc at Durham University, I entered local government in 1964; qualified as a Chartered Planner in 1967 and worked in local government for over 20 years culminating in being appointed as CEO of a Metropolitan District. I then moved out of local government as CEO of an Urban Development Corporation followed by CEO of a Regional Development Agency. I concluded my working career as a self-employed consultant in Urban Regeneration for 7 years before retiring from paid employment in 2011.

ISSUE 1

This concerns the proposed amendment to Schedule 4B of the Town and Country Planning Act, which proposes that after para (2) the following be inserted: "(3) The outcome of such a referendum shall only be valid if the turnout is equal to or greater than 40%."

I am opposed to this for the following reasons:

1. Neighbourhood Plans cover a wide range of different types of area and it is entirely inappropriate to suggest that a specific requirement of this sort can properly apply to all areas and all types of Neighbourhood Plan, regardless of the facts concerning that Plan and the geographical area involved. For Neighbourhood Plans concerned (say) with the difficult issue of allocating land for additional housing in smaller settlements, it is not unreasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the people living in that community would be directly interested in the issues involved and that the turnout at the referendum would be likely to reflect that extent of involvement. In the case of Altrincham Town Centre the position is totally different. A town centre the size of Altrincham serves a very wide area, embracing at least a population of 50,000 people. To suggest that the NBP process could realistically engage with and actively involve 20,000+ individuals over the three year course of developing the Plan and then promote a 40% turnout is totally unreal. (NB I am aware of course that people under 18 would not be eligible to vote which is why I have understated the catchment population which is probably in excess of 70,00.) We have worked very hard indeed to ensure that as many people as possible have been involved in our process and over the three stages of public consultation which we have promoted, we received c. 3,000 responses to our on-line questionnaires along with comments at the many events and meetings in which we have been involved. This level of community involvement is regarded by all those who have actual experience of these matters to have been very successful indeed. As I say, to suggest that we should have engaged with 20,000+ people ignores the reality of the situation. We involved as many people as wanted to be involved. Everyone who wanted to be involved in any way (including several hundred secondary school and college students) was encouraged to do so.   

2. The concept of Neighbourhood Planning is based on the premise that Neighbourhood Plans should be driven by the weight of public opinion as expressed through the various stages of public consultation. If a set % level of response was required it would effectively destroy Neighbourhood Planning in urban areas. What should be required is that the Plan does indeed reflect public opinion and not just the views of a few activists. This involves ensuring that the views of ALL those who take the time and trouble to get involved are properly assessed and played back to the public for confirmation (or otherwise) as the process evolves. The % of the theoretical total of the potential population is not relevant. What matters is the extent to which active engagement has been encouraged and that the Plan reflects the weight of public opinion expressed.

3. When local government elections are held (and not linked to other eg national elections) it is often the case that a lower turnout than 40% is achieved – mainly in urban areas and in the north. The concept that a fixed minimum turnout must be achieved in the case of Neighbourhood Plan Referenda is simply not democratic. In a free society people decide whether to get involved and then whether to vote or not. The outcome should never be potentially aborted if an arbitrary % turnout is not achieved.

For these reasons the proposed amendment and the concept of a minimum % turnout should be opposed.

Issue 2.

In Business Neighbourhood Plans, two referenda are involved – one for businesses and the other for the general public. The Bill needs to thoroughly address the issue of the boundaries of the two referenda instead of simply assuming that they will be the same. Take the Altrincham TC NBPlan as an example.

The Plan boundary covers the town centre itself as it is the future of the centre which is the issue which the Plan seeks to address. When the Forum was set up in 2013 it was expressly in order to address the decline that had occurred over recent years; the high level of vacancies; the fact that the town no longer met the needs of its catchment population etc. The Plan boundary embraces all the businesses that provide the wide range of services which together makes up the town centre offer. The town centre however provides those services for a much wider population than the relatively few who live in the town centre. To insist (as it seems was the case in Milton Keynes and might also be the case for Altrincham) that the referenda should have the same boundaries i.e. either the Plan boundary or a boundary informed by knowledge of the post codes of the people who have been actively engaged in the process, totally ignores the fact that the area providing the services is totally different to the area using those services. The Bill needs to recognise this for Neighbourhood Business Plans and in the Altrincham example, provide for the Business Referendum to cover the Plan area and the general public referendum to cover an appropriate wider area reflecting the town centre’s catchment, to be agreed by the Local Authority and the Examiner in consultation with (in Altrincham the Neighbourhood Forum) or the Parish Council.

In May 2015, the Neighbourhood Forum submitted a case for defining separate boundaries to the local authority and a copy of that is set out below.

THE CASE FOR DEFINING SEPARATE BOUNDARIES FOR THE BUSINESS AND GENERAL PUBLIC REFERENDA.

1. It is important to recognise at the outset that the Neighbourhood Business Plan (NBP) impacts on two different constituencies (communities of interest) in very different ways and this lies at the root of the case for the boundaries of the referenda being drawn to reflect the specific nature of each of those constituencies.

2. The first constituency, the businesses which make up the town centre, all lie within the NBP boundary. They are the businesses which provide the services which collectively go to make up what Altrincham Town Centre (ATC) offers. It is those businesses, along with any others who join the town centre during the plan period (2015 to 2030), which will invest, develop, adapt and evolve as market demands change. Collectively, they make up the character of the place, in terms of the range, nature and quality of the services which the town centre offers. The views of those businesses have been taken into account as the plan has been prepared, and their opinion on the final plan is of key importance. The Business Referendum must ensure that it is these businesses which have the opportunity to vote on whether or not they support the final Plan.

3. The second constituency are all those people served by the town centre, all those members of the general public who look to ATC to provide them with some or all of the services they require. The resultant catchment is, as a consequence, much wider than the NBP boundary, focussed mainly on the WA14 and WA15 post codes. This catchment population will also be served by other centres, ranging from local centres such as Hale, Hale Barns and Timperely, to larger centres such as Manchester City Centre and the Trafford Centre. The issue however is whether that catchment population supports the ATC NBPlan and its proposals and policies, as providing the appropriate context for the town centre to develop and evolve so that it can deliver the services those people require.

4. These two quite different constituencies are inevitably inter-twined as is any relationship between the provider of services and the consumer of those services. It is in both their interests that they are both supportive of the Plan. The Referenda therefore must provide both the opportunity for all the businesses providing the services to express their views on the Plan in the Business Referendum and all those served by those businesses to express their views in the General Public Referendum. It follows that as these constituencies are essentially different, and as their geographical coverage is also different, that the boundaries of the two referenda need to reflect those facts.

5. If the boundary determined for the General Public Referendum were then to be used for the Business Referendum that would necessarily distort the whole process. The consultation stages have encouraged those businesses in ATC to get involved and provide their views. If the Business Referendum boundary were drawn wider than the NBP boundary, then a whole range of other businesses who are not part of ATC, not involved in providing town centre services and have no current direct role in contributing to the development and evolution of the town centre, would have opportunity to influence the outcome of the referendum. The use of such a boundary therefore would inevitably distort the whole process and cast doubt on the relevance and legitimacy of the outcome of the Business Referendum. This possibility should not be countenanced. It is of fundamental importance that the businesses making up the town centre are the ones who determine the outcome of the Business Referendum as it is those businesses which carry the responsibility for the ongoing development and evolution of the town centre and for ensuring that it meets the requirements of its catchment population. It should also be remembered that anyone who owns or works in a business outside the ATC but within the General Public Referendum boundary and who lives in that boundary, will have the opportunity to vote as a member of the public.

6. There is one other aspect of this matter which should be taken into account. Both referenda will ask the same simple question as to whether or not the plan is supported. In practice however, that question means two totally different things to the two constituencies. For the businesses in ATC the question is really asking whether the plan provides an appropriate context within which the ATC business community can respond effectively to the inevitable changes in market demand which will take place over the plan period. For the general public, the question is really asking whether the plan will result in the development of a town centre which will meet their requirements as consumers of the services it offers.  Both questions are legitimate but each relates to a particular constituency each of which has a particular (and different) geographical representation. It is imperative that those different geographical representations are fairly reflected in the referenda boundaries.

7. Finally, it needs to be borne in mind that the Core Strategy provides the existing policy context within which the relative and respective roles of all the centres in Trafford operate, whether they are local centres such as Hale and Timperley, or main centres such as Altrincham and Sale and the Trafford Centre. As the ATC NBPlan is in general conformity with the Core Strategy, none of the policies and proposals in the Plan seek to change those relative and respective roles. As a consequence, there is no legitimacy in the argument that businesses outside ATC should be able to vote as the Plan seeks to change the balance between centres as formalised in the Core Strategy. The Plan quite clearly does not seek to change those relative and respective roles.

Mike Shields, Chairman, ATC NBP Working Group. 14/5/15

October 2016

 

Prepared 19th October 2016