The Midsomer Norton Neighbourhood Plan
The idea of a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) was part of the Great Society drive by the David Cameron-led Coalition Government of 2010 (anyone remember that?!). Cameron hoped that communities would be strengthened and life improved if small areas, like towns or parishes, were able to have a say in the planning of how their built environment was to be developed. The Neighbourhood Plan would set planning policies to form part of the development plan used in determining planning obligations. It would be the fine local detail at the bottom of a hierarchy of plans, so it would not contradict any of the B&NES Core Strategy or Local Plan, but would add to them. The NP sat alonside vague but worthy ideas like the encouragement of volunteering, but unlike them, it was firmed up, given real legal status and, arguably, teeth.
To emphasise that it was serious, money was attached: the then new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a tax on development levied per square metre of floor space, would be paid in part to the smallest authorities, such as our Town Council. If the Town or Parish council did not have a Neighbourhood Plan, 15% of CIL monies would be paid to it directly, but if there was a fully established Neighbourhood Plan, that would rise to 25%.
So we have two incentives to bring our NP forward: first, to engage people in thinking about the future of our area and to have some say in it. In fact, for the NP to become part of planning law, it has to be approved, finally, by a local referendum. And secondly, to bring some welcome extra money to the Town Council, without having to raise the Precept (the small part of Council Tax which goes to the Town or Parish).
Work has been done, a Neighbourhood Plan Committee was formed three years ago, a draft plan appeared and formal public consultation took place, with a public exhibition in the Town Hall. However, it has to be admitted that the project stalled. Faithful readers of Midsomer Norton Life will know that the Council decided to concentrate on achieving the long dreamed-of Town Park, and to engage with Bath and North East Somerset Council in the transfer to the Town Council of key community assets including the Town Hall, the Orchard Hall and the Somer Centre.
These major projects took (and are taking) much of the Council’s attention and energy. However, a lot of work was put into the Neighbourhood Plan in the earlier years, and a substantial and well-illustrated draft exists, incorporating the comments from the consultation and offering policies to improve the town centre, make access to the centre easier, preserve our wonderful natural environment, further improve leisure facilities, and guide potential developers in some principles of design intended to preserve and enhance the local character and the Conservation Area.
A small group has met to try to knock the draft into shape, and it has a further meeting planned. Once that is achieved, there are a number of steps in the plan-making process before it can go in front of the full B&NES Council to be approved. We haven’t got there yet, but “watch this space”: we do intend that you will see a Neighbourhood Plan come into the light in the end.