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Latest Neighbourhood Plan Making Progress in the North West

The results of the latest survey

Once again, a team of Planning Aid volunteers has been monitoring the progress of Neighbourhood Plan making in our Region. Since 2012 when the powers were first made available to local communities nearly 200 (195) Neighbourhood Plans have now been started in the North West. That is 11 more than a year ago and an increase of 27 over two years, so there are signs that the uptake rate of this task is slowing down.

There remain large variations across the North West in Neighbourhood Plan making activity. Just under half of all the Plans started are in the Cheshire sub-region with the most all in Cheshire East (54) followed by Cheshire West and Chester(36). Only 16 Plans have been started in the Liverpool City Region, 19 in Greater Manchester, 29 in Cumbria and 37 in Lancashire. Each sub-region has seen new designations over the past year except for Cumbria where there were none and some slowing progress of those started.

Only 27 of the designated groups are Forums and a significant number of these have made little or no progress. Three Forums have been re-designated because they had been in existence for over 5 years, but five others have also been in place for at least that long and yet have not sought re-designation, so they effectively cease to exist. Just five Forums were set up as Business ones.

On the positive side just over a third (34%) of all the Plans started have been completed and formally ‘made’. About two-thirds of these made Plans are in the two Cheshire unitary authorities where nearly half of all the Plans started here have reached the final stage. Elsewhere the ‘made’ proportion of started Plans ranges from 15% (in Greater Manchester) to 27% in Lancashire.

Successful Plan making performance is highest in the more affluent areas. A total of 40% of started Plans have been completed in the top two quartiles of areas with least deprivation. Whereas for Plans in areas falling within the two quartiles most deprived, the ‘made’ rate average is just 24%.

How can we account for these variations in Plan making performance?

Certain local planning authorities promote and support neighbourhood planning more than others. The support offered by authorities was measure against 10 criteria as evidence from their published website information. A total of six councils offer at least 7 of the 10 support features. These include the three authorities with the most Plans – the two Cheshire unitary authorities and Eden Council in Cumbria. However, Carlisle, Sefton and Knowsley Councils also score at least 7 and have far fewer Plans; Knowsley Council designated its first in 2019, at Halewood.

Generally, the level of support local authorities offer is edging up each year since this monitoring started over three years ago. However, this measurable support clearly does not account for all the variation in Plan uptake and success rates. Councils’ attitude to neighbourhood planning will vary but this is very difficult to measure.

A tangible factor that can be assessed is the performance of Forums. Unfortunately, the most supportive local authorities and certainly those with the most Plans have no Forums so it is not possible to directly equate Forum success rates with consistent levels of support. However, of the 27 Forums which have started off only 5 have achieved a made Plan and as we have seen many others appear to have given up the task completely. 

Undoubtedly the task of Plan making is much harder for Forums compared to Parish/Town Councils. The latter have an established organisational structure, staffing support (a clerk), a longstanding working relationship with their local planning authority, often prior experience of plan making (e.g. Parish Plans) and the capacity to raise revenue. Forums by contrast need to create themselves from scratch, often have little or no financial resource and typically comprise members unfamiliar with the planning system. At one time Forums were automatically eligible for extra government grant support but are now only eligible for one additional Technical Support package – to help them become designated.

Of more general concern is that the monitoring shows more and more groups, whether they be Parish Councils or Forums, struggling to complete the task of producing a Plan. The latest findings show that 53 Plans which were started in 2016 or earlier have not proceeded to a formal stage beyond initial designation. The equivalent figure from a year ago was 44. 

Why are many Neighbourhood Plan groups making slow or no progress?

The short answer is we don’t know and there is little research from elsewhere in the country to shed light on this. Producing a Neighbourhood Plan is no easy task. Very few groups can successfully go through the whole process without professional assistance but inevitably grant funding and other support available (from all sources, including Planning Aid) is limited. Some groups are fortunate to include professional planners within their ranks and/or have substantial financial resources of their own to pay for extra help.

The other reasons why some groups struggle is probably a combination of factors. Some groups may enter the process with unreasonable expectations and become disillusioned at the scale of the task. The people directly involved may start with the best of intentions, be well organised and led but these persons will often have many calls on their time and/or move away from the area to follow employment or other overriding commitments.

To fully expose the range of difficulties some groups face further research is needed.