Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan is an excellent piece of work of which people should be justly proud. I am therefore puzzled why Henley's experience of the Plan should be so radically different from many of the over 2000 similar plans which have been produced around the country. The experience of Woodcote, for example, is completely different. They tell me that, as a result of their Plan, the Parish Council now has a real say as equals in discussions with both developers and the District Council. The fact is that if Henley didn't have a Neighbourhood Plan, local people would have precious little ability to have any input into local planning. They now have this and as the decision over the development at Thames Farm shows the Plan was upheld.
The idea that Neighbourhood Plans are worthless simply because the district council cannot show a five year land supply is incorrect. This can be demonstrated by the official Guidance that has been prepared and by the specific rejection of this idea by the High Court. Planning Inspectors and the Secretary of State support this view and are finding in favour of Neighbourhood Plans.
A Neighbourhood Plan has legal status. It has the same legal status as the District's Local Plan and therefore carries weight. At Woodcote their Plan has enabled refusal of applications not in line with it. Geoff Botting from Woodcote Parish Council said that Woodcote has also found the AONB around the village protected from speculative applications.
Legal status does not give it the rights of Statute. Once adopted it becomes part of a suite of planning policy documents including national and district planning policy against which applications are judged. It is highly unlikely that an application will tick all the boxes in relation to every planning policy. This all has to be weighed up.
Each case is unique and you cannot move from the specific to the general. In Henley itself recent Care Homes applications were not so far removed from the Neighbourhood Plan to lead to refusal. So there's a need for a pragmatic approach to Neighbourhood Plans. In the case of one current application, the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group (NPSG) is considering a mixed development on a site that had been designated for industrial or commercial use in the Plan. Both the Chairman of the NPSG and the Mayor of Henley support this idea. It is a good example of pragmatism to take a longer view of things in order to get the affordable housing we need. In another case – Thames Farm – I know of at least one local Henley politician initially determined to support the planning application – thus undermining the Plan completely.
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently going through Parliament seeks to address some of these points and to strengthen the voice of communities. I welcome this and am happy to talk to people further if they would like to discuss it.