Too many neighbourhood plans are driven with pre-determined views, where professional advice is being ignored and openly criticised
Thursday, 10 March 2016 13:33 Local government lawyer
Aylesbury Vale District Council has decided – “in response to new evidence and sound legal advice” – not to contest a legal challenge made by developers to a neighbourhood plan.
The High Court had been due to hear the case relating to the Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan this week (9 March).
The plan was approved in September 2015. However, Lightwood Strategic, a developer, launched judicial review proceedings, claiming that mistakes had been made in its preparation.
Lightwood submitted fresh evidence in the week before the hearing. After consulting its barrister, Aylesbury Vale decided that it would be interests of the council if it ceased to contest the claim.
The decision means that, via a consent order, the housing policies in the Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan will be quashed and then removed.
Cllr Carole Paternoster, Cabinet Member for Growth Strategy at Aylesbury Vale (AVDC), said: “It is very regrettable that we have to take this step but we have to act in the best interests of Aylesbury Vale overall. This decision should not be seen as a lessening of the authority’s support for neighbourhood plans generally, as the exact circumstances of this case are very specific to the Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan.
“For example, in the case of the Winslow Neighbourhood Plan, AVDC successfully defended it against a legal challenge and we will defend all plans where the prospects of success are reasonable. However, AVDC must take its decisions on the basis of the best interests of all its residents.”
Aylesbury Vale said it would continue to assist Haddenham Parish Council to renew its plan as soon as possible. The district council will also review what other measures might need to be put in place “to ensure that the chances of such errors occurring again with other neighbourhood plans are minimised”.
Lightwood Strategic has submitted a planning application for land at Haddenham which is subject to a public inquiry.
In response to Aylesbury Vale’s decision Haddenham Parish Council said: “This is a huge disappointment to Haddenham Parish Council and the residents of Haddenham who originally voted in favour of AVDC making the HNP plan for the purpose of deciding planning applications in Haddenham.”
It added: “On 1st March AVDC told the parish council by phone that the risk of losing the case was seen as too costly by them in the light of their expectation that the housing policies of the HNP – which were based on figures previously advised by AVDC – would be out of date when the housing allocations are made for AVDC’s new Vale of Aylesbury Local Plan (VALP).
“However, this rationale fails to take account of the fact that their agreement to allow Chapter 6 of the HNP to be quashed leaves the village with no protection from random developer planning applications in the period until a new or revised HNP is developed to plan for the far higher housing allocation envisaged in the new VALP.”
The parish council said it had had the option, as a registered interested party, to defend the neighbourhood plan without the district council. However, it concluded that this option was untenable for a range of reasons.
These included that the district council’s decision to no longer defend the case would have exposed the parish council to the potential risk that it could be liable to the full costs incurred by Lightwoods were they to contest it and the case be lost.
“This is not a risk any parish council is in a position to take and therefore the decision had to be made to agree to the consent order,” the parish council said.
It added: “The future of neighbourhood planning being undertaken by volunteers in their communities appears to be under threat if they cannot be protected by the bodies that are there to support them through the process and beyond.
“Neighbourhood planning is now likely to turn into a costly process that is carried out by professionals for those communities with sufficient funding and will be beyond the reach of many smaller communities. This surely goes against the principles of localism on which the neighbourhood planning policy was founded.”
Haddenham Parish Council urged central government to take action to “prevent a situation where developers and land traders with deep pockets can employ lawyers to comb neighbourhood plans for the inevitable minor errors and oversights as the Independent Examiner described, and then pursue unrelenting legal action contesting those neighbourhood plans until the will or financial ability of communities who created them to defend those plans is exhausted”.
Philip Chichester MRTPI, Director of Lightwood Strategic, described the decision as “hugely important” and claimed that the housing policy within the Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan had been “deeply flawed”.
Chichester added: “Good neighbourhood planning requires a collaborative approach involving representatives from across the community, across all tiers of local government, and from the development community.
“It is only by working together from the outset that all stakeholders can prepare strong, sustainable neighbourhood plans that strike the appropriate balance between protecting the unique character of local communities and meeting their future housing and infrastructure needs.
“We look forward to a positive decision by Greg Clark in the near future so that we can get on with helping the Government meet its housing pledge – and to get Britain building.”
James Sorrentino, also a Director of Lightwood Strategic, said: “This is a vitally important decision for local communities, local authorities and the planning and development industry as a whole. Too many neighbourhood plans are driven with pre-determined views, where professional advice is being ignored and openly criticised. The best sites should come first – the alternative is we create substandard plans for the next 20 years, on the wrong sites.
“To get Britain building the new homes the country desperately needs, planners, promoters, developers and communities must be confident that sustainable developments, in the right locations, can and will come forward.”
Hopefully Effingham Parish Council will take on board what happened in the above example and ensure that there is no repeat for Effingham. It is worth noting that Effingham Residents Association has repeatedly advised the Parish Council to seek proper independent planning advice. The risk of a predetermined policy to build on Effingham Lodge Farm (West) becoming the cornerstone of their Neighbourhood Plan could well suffer the same exploitation from developers if there are any grounds for a developer to exploit and undermine. Surely the relatively small cost of seeking a professional Independent Planning Consultant’s view at this stage could really work in the favour of the Parish Council.