At one stage, the annual White Christmas wager was looking like a safer bet than a ratified neighbourhood plan in Yorkshire.
All this changed last week when over 95 per cent of respondents approved Walton’s Neighbourhood Plan – a resounding yes for a legal document that took two years to prepare.
However, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, turnout continues to haunt Neighbourhood Plan referendums. Earlier this year the Horninglow and Eton Neighbourhood Plan only generated an 11 per cent turnout. So far, nearly 120 referendums have taken place and the average turnout is 34 per cent (strangely similar to local election turnouts).
Research reveals that if you’re responding in a neighbourhood plan referendum, you’re more inclined to say yes – the average yes vote is 88 per cent. But with low turnouts continuing to plague them, is this high figure a fair reflection of local feeling?
A development unfriendly Neighbourhood Plan is not going to cut it with an examiner – “bah humbug we don’t want it” is not enough. Industry commentator Tony Burton said that at present, most stages of neighbourhood planning are “entirely in the gift of local authorities”, which are often “slow or deliberately obstructive”, which goes some way towards explaining why only around 60 have been adopted and more importantly, why people perhaps aren’t keen to get involved in the process.
The objective of a Neighbourhood Plan is clear – to guide the future development, regeneration and conservation of an area. The consultation process gives those living and working in the area the opportunity to help draft a Neighbourhood Plan in a practical, positive, and influential way. Neighbourhood Plans have nurtured interest in the planning process and helped to sprout happy communities.
The foundations have been laid, but how can we encourage participation?
If people aren’t encouraged to participate in the process, we’ll have more success asking Santa for a Neighbourhood Plan than relying solely on DCLG’s plan making pilot, where grants of up to £60,000 per authority are available. The Government may have to consider an incentive to increase participation, such as setting a minimum turnout threshold for making a plan legitimate (or gifting a £50 Amazon voucher). Taking Horninglow and Eton as an example, 1,182 votes were cast meaning only 592 votes were required for its approval.
Walton’s Neighbourhood Plan has its own dedicated website, Twitter feed and coverage in the local media – helping to boost awareness. Robust consultation was carried out and it paid off.
My Christmas wish this year is that this example triggers interest, inspiring local residents nationwide.