One of our Associate Directors, Emma Benson, reflects on her time working in Tiptree, and considers whether neighbourhood planning is the golden bullet for community-led development or just a red herring.

It’s hard to remember the exact dates now, but some time between 2017 and 2019, I spent a lot of time in Tiptree. I was working with a client on their site in the village and most of our work was associated with the neighbourhood plan. What I do remember is many evenings and afternoons spent meeting with local people and the Neighbourhood Planning group, discussing their aspirations and our proposed scheme. The community will now vote in a referendum on 4th May and hope to see the Plan adopted later this year.

Tiptree is a large village in Colchester. You know – the one with the nice jam? Colchester is an interesting authority, challenging in its own way. Unable to form a majority even as the largest party, the Conservatives have conceded control of the Council in recent years to a colourful coalition of Labour, Lib Dem and Green. This won’t be the first time that there are enough seats available for the Conservatives to win back the authority and finally regain control, but in truth, it’s very unlikely we’ve seen the last time they will be unsuccessful.

Ian Clark

The Local Plan at the time had a rather unsophisticated map of Tiptree with an arrow indicating, very broadly, in which direction the village might grow.

This was an unusual approach to allocating sites, but with a Neighbourhood Plan coming down the line and a diligent and hardworking group of residents behind it, the intention was to allow them to take the housing numbers required and choose where they should go themselves. In theory, this was the pinnacle of community development planning.

Crown copyright and data rights 2014 Ordanance Survey 10023706

The group worked hard to understand what their community felt was important and any challenges they should seek to address. Ultimately, they decided that the focus of the plan should be on delivering a northern link road to relieve traffic in the centre of the village. They recognised that development could help to facilitate this.

They approach their referendum on 4th May after nine years of work. They have chosen to allocate two sites, but one was forced upon them after an application was refused locally but was successful at appeal. However, through their allocation of two sites, they should manage to deliver the first two sections of their link road – though they will have to fill in the gap with more homes to really make this a reality. Jonathan Greenwood, who is the chairman of the Neighbourhood Steering Group in Tiptree, said: “I hope it will be put through, and while you can never be complacent, I am optimistic.”

I remember similar feelings when my own local Neighbourhood Plan was put to referendum. I was a parish councillor at the time and had been quite involved in the early days of its production. Ours was approved with 86.42% voting in favour based on a turnout of 15% – much lower than we would normally expect at an election. Despite the intention when first introduced, Neighbourhood Plans don’t provide the significant protections against development that communities might imagine. Currently, if a local authority cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, and a neighbourhood plan is more than two years old, there is a presumption in favour of development.

The government recently consulted on their proposed changes to the NPPF and these included plans to “boost the status of Neighbourhood Plans” by increasing the protection period of a Neighbourhood Plan from two to five years. Is it enough? In my experience, Neighbourhood Plans are rarely used as a genuine opportunity to engage with and listen to communities, or as a chance to give true power back to those who live in a place. However, an increase in three years on the protection they offer is not insignificant.

Unlike in my own Neighbourhood Plan, Colchester have given Tiptree genuine opportunity to choose where to put development, albeit their hands were tied with an existing permission. Only time will tell whether their nine years of effort will genuinely mean that Tiptree is able to shape development and make decisions about their future, but like Greenwood, I am optimistic and hope that this could pave the way for more community development in Tiptree.

Do you have a site in an authority with a Neighbourhood Plan in place or in the works? If you want to have a chat about what this could mean for your scheme, please get in touch.

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