by Ed Dade
Posted on March 19, 2019
News that the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan was rejected at referendum has spread rapidly across social media and has even been picked up by local and national press.
The story has garnered a lot of attention as it is highly unusual for a Neighbourhood Plan to be rejected. The Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan is only the third Neighbourhood Plan not to be supported by residents.
At the referendum held on 14 March 2019, the Neighbourhood Plan was rejected, albeit by a very slim margin of just 22 votes.
Prior to the referendum, Labour town councillors led a campaign which encouraged local people to vote against the Neighbourhood Plan.
Based on the literature shared by the campaign group, opposition to the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan appears to be pointed at three key issues:
The Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan appears to have been a comprehensive document with policies which sought to address a wide range of issues, particularly relating to revitalising the town centre.
Middlewich is a location for strategic growth. The Cheshire East Local Plan Strategy identifies a requirement for 1,950 dwellings at Middlewich and 75 hectares of employment land, with much of this growth being delivered through strategic sites to the south of the town.
The basic conditions require Neighbourhood Plans to be in general conformity with the strategic policies for the area. It is possible that some people who disagreed with the scale of growth Middlewich is expected to accommodate did not understand the constraints within which a Neighbourhood Plan must operate. Their dissatisfaction with the overall scale of growth perhaps should have been directed at the Local Plan, but instead they chose to punish the Neighbourhood Plan.
Strategic growth at Middlewich appears to be a matter principally dealt with through the Local Plan. However, the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan identified two sites which would include an element of housing development. One of which, a canal-side and marina development, is the subject of an emerging Supplementary Planning Document currently being worked-up by Cheshire East Council, and therefore may well be developed despite the Neighbourhood Plan being rejected - now without the input of the Neighbourhood Plan.
Whilst there were accusations from the 'No' campaign that the process wasn't sufficiently inclusive, the examiner was satisfied that the necessary procedural requirements had been followed. The examiner's report notes that the plan was prepared by a Steering Group comprising town councillors, local residents and members of the local community and business groups.
In addition to the formal consultation stages, the Steering Group took over a vacant shop in the town centre, held drop-in sessions, delivered questionnaires to every household through a local magazine, and promoted the plan at a Classic Car and Bike event, Makers Market and other events.
There may well have been some challenging local politics at play. However, the case highlights the importance of getting the wider community to 'buy-in' to the Neighbourhood Plan, and illustrates what can go wrong where people do not feel they have been included, whether founded or otherwise.
It is possible that local people may have directed their frustrations with the high demand for growth at the Neighbourhood Plan. However, the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan could not realistically avoid strategic growth in its area, else it would fall foul of the basic conditions.
The Neighbourhood Plan contains a number of positive aspirations, particularly around supporting the viability and vitality of the town centre. By rejecting the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan, there could be an element of 'throwing the baby out with the bath water'.
A more pragmatic solution may have been to support the Neighbourhood Plan, and commence an immediate review to produce a document which better reflects the aspirations of the local community.
Writing a Neighbourhood Plan (or for that matter, a Local Plan) is inherently constrained by external factors, such as national policy, legislation, and other plans and strategies. Plan-making requires taking difficult decisions and there will always be people who are disgruntled.
What is perhaps most surprising is just how few Neighbourhood Plans have been rejected at referendum. Overwhelmingly, residents turn out and support the plan at the ballot box.
In March 2018, the government published a report which showed there have been well over 700 Neighbourhood Plan referendums.
Including the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan, there have been only three Neighbourhood Plans rejected at referendum.
The unfortunate case of the Middlewich Neighbourhood Plan is, therefore, very much an exception. Prospective neighbourhood planners should take comfort in the fact that the vast majority of Neighbourhood Plans are successful at referendum.