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06/02/2015

Behind the examination

Words:

If we are to avoid further failures of neighbourhood plans at examination, we need to help communities produce high quality reports based on robust evidence, says Ann Skippers

Ann SkippersNearly a year on, people are still talking about Slaugham’s failure at examination.

That’s good in some ways because neighbourhood plans need to be of a high standard. So if Slaugham made people sit up and pause for a bit, then I make no apology for failing it at examination.

These are important statutory plans that have real bite. Just think how many appeals Pickles has recovered over recent months if you need any more convincing.

The key to successful examination is to show how the plan meets the basic conditions. A clear provenance for each policy will help do this, together with a robust evidence base.

But it is hard to judge just how much evidence is needed and what that might look like, particularly in respect of those bemusing housing numbers.

Selecting development sites is often a terrifying prospect for communities and can prove divisive. Cries of “I still have to live in this village, you know” are not uncommon among those tasked with such assessments. But it’s the extra layer of insight that local knowledge brings that could mean that a site scoring highly won’t be allocated, while a site scoring more poorly might well be because it deals with an eyesore that has been the bane of that community for years.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) seems to be a mysterious thing. The key for me is for local authorities to undertake screening at an early stage and to use SEA as an influencer on an evolving plan rather than as justification after the horse has bolted.
Experience is growing, of course, but what to expect at examination can still be puzzling. There is increased concern over consistency among examiners.

"Local knowledge could mean that a site scoring highly won't be allocated"

The examiner’s remit is quite tight; the test of a neighbourhood plan is whether it meets the basic conditions – very different from the tests for a local plan.

While modifications recommended by examiners have the potential to derail community aspirations, most will recognise that examiners can only deal with what’s in front of them and will welcome clear, precise reports. A health check will help to identify any areas of concern before a formal examination.

Many more people have become engaged in planning and now understand how difficult – and rewarding – it is. Slaugham is still the only plan to have failed at examination. And I hope that remains the case.

What’s needed now to help those working in neighbourhood planning is stability and greater certainty over long-term support and funding for communities.

Ann Skippers is principal of Ann Skippers Planning as well as an independent examiner and a past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute

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