Torbay Council in Devon are in danger of chalking up an ignominious first – a refusal to re-designate Neighbourhood Forums. Neighbourhood Forums are a feature of the Tory/Lib Dem flagship Localism Act of 2011 which transfers a greater say in planning decisions to those most affected – the local communities.
The great idea was that Local Authorities work with their communities to produce a Local Plan which outlines the overarching planning framework for their areas. Neighbourhood Forums, working with the Council and various Community Partnerships or Parish Councils, would then be charged with producing a Neighbourhood Plan that provided more detailed, micro information on how the Local Plan should best be implemented within specific areas.
Torbay decided in 2012 to divide its overall area of responsibility into three smaller areas – Torquay, Paignton and Brixham – each with its own Neighbourhood Forum. These three areas are among the largest planning areas in the country, with Torquay, for example, covering a population of 65,000. This arrangement of Neighbourhood Forums has generally been regarded as trailblazing the production of large Neighbourhood Plans and putting local democracy into practice.
But, Country Squire Magazine hears, Torbay Council are now in danger of throwing all this away.
Sladnor Park, Maidencombe. A mock-up of vile plans being considered by Torbay Council
The three Neighbourhood Forums were formally designated on 7th December 2012, for a five year period, to develop Neighbourhood Plans based on the emerging Torbay Local Plan 2012-2030 which was formally adopted in 2015. After five years of hard work by dozens of community volunteers, and liaison with Torbay Council planning experts, the three Forums submitted their final Neighbourhood Plans to Torbay Council in October 2017, having obtained overwhelming support from their local communities through three rounds of painstaking consultation. These Neighbourhood Plans complied with policy requirements and more than met the required delivery of housing to support the Local Plan.
So, why is there a serious risk of it all being thrown away?
Unexpectedly, Council Officers have written a report recommending the designations should not be renewed. If the Neighbourhood Forums are not re-designated, then the Neighbourhood Plans will become void, and will not proceed to the Inspection and Referendum stage as planned.
Before now, any Forum that has produced a Plan has always been re-designated, so failure to re-designate would be a national ‘first’. Shenanigans on a scale which will cause a national scandal. Because the final stage of public consultation on the three Plans will not be complete until 18th December, due to what might seem to be deliberate delays by the Council Officers, if the Forums are not re-designated the Plans could be binned. This is shocking – and wholly unacceptable.
Re-designation is crucial to ensuring that local community voices are heard on Planning Applications, protecting our beautiful British countryside and wildlife from destruction, and to support Torbay Council going forward with any required changes as plans are inspected and implemented over time.
Why might these designations not be re-designated?
Despite the Neighbourhood Forums having collaborated with council staff in their preparation, it seems that senior council staff – who, for now, shall remain nameless – have taken exception to the Neighbourhood Plans. Senior Officers produced an erroneous briefing for the Councillors, disagreeing with the Neighbourhood Plans and criticising the Forums. However that itself is not a justification against renewal of the designations.
The Chairs of the Neighbourhood Forums have protested vigorously against this briefing, and local Community Partnerships have been lobbying their Ward Councillors to vote in favour of re-designation at their meeting on 7thDecember.
Given the local communities’ dedication, commitment and depth of access to the country’s finest planning lawyers, the Country Squires trust that decency and democracy will prevail at this important Council meeting tomorrow. Many of the public are expected to be there, as well as some press informants, so it should be … well … a lively meeting.
Will Torbay do the unthinkable and create history by refusing to re-designate?
They would surely be insane to even try. All eyes are on them now. Their every move is now being scrutinised by the local community, attentive journalists, animal rights lobbyists, civil engineering groups, Westminster and a myriad of other interested parties, ready to go to war against them.
It is now in the hands of the councillors, the majority of whom are Conservatives, to vote in support of re-designation of the Neighbourhood Forums. If they do not do so, then not only will Torbay Council achieve a first in blocking democracy, all hell will be paid at forthcoming elections – and by Sajid Javid and Michael Gove – when the local community defends its green and pleasant territory from miscalculating developers.