Designation refused

It’s bad news, I’m afraid.

MNF’s application for designation to prepare the neighbourhood plan for the seven unparished wards of Maidenhead has been refused.  In this post, you can read a summary of the reasons given and our views on whether the decision is correct.  You are invited to comment on what the next steps should be.

Rather to our surprise, the decision was made by James Carpenter, the interim head of planning - an RBWM officer - rather than the lead member for planning, Cllr David Coppinger.- who had indicated to me that he would be making the decision, with officers’ advice.

The reasons given for refusal are as follows:

  • The Forum is required to have 21+ members and efforts should have been made to attract a representative cross-section of the neighbourhood but there is insufficient evidence of having achieved either
  • Our engagement with the business community has been too limited
  • The consultation did not yield enough evidence of widespread public support.

The application for area designation also failed, for the following reasons:

  • The Forum failed, so the Area must do so too
  • The area was insufficiently delineated
  • The area was too large.

You can read the full letter, with all its legalese, here:

MNF-Application-Decision-Letter-06.02.2020.pdf

Are the stated reasons valid?

Our application was very clear about the area being applied for, and the reasons why it was the only appropriate area to designate, but the officers seem to have overlooked pages 4 to 10 in the Qualifying Statement that explained all. MNF was undoubtedly tackling an unusually large area for a neighbourhood plan; a population of 53,000 put us emphatically in the “large” category but nowhere does the legislation specify a maximum.  However, Carpenter refers to “current best practice” to bolster his case. Paradoxically, an even larger area including Cox Green was previously designated to a forerunner forum in 2012.

MNF currently has 59 members which comfortably exceeds the minimum requirement. All meetings have been quorate (eleven people) and the constitution was accepted as valid, so the fact that meetings have not always attracted 21 people physically together in one place is both irrelevant and not a legal requirement anyway.

We provided quantitative evidence of very effective online public engagement as part of the pre-decision consultation but, in this case, Carpenter chooses to interpret the legislation literally, with no reference to “current best practice” when it does not bolster his case.  Online engagement and social media have emerged as the norm for public debate since the legislation was framed in 2011 and we feel strongly that our efforts should have been applauded, not excluded. Our professional advisers (AECOM) recognise the thought leadership that we have brought to public engagement.

Business engagement is challenging, and more difficult to do online, but we acknowledge that more could have been done.  Pre-existing groups, such as Maidenhead & District Chamber of Commerce and Maidenhead Town Partnership, were approached and contributed but neither represent more than a tiny proportion of businesses.

The consultation responses are not available to view via the Borough’s consultation portal, so we are unable to comment on the level of public support given.  We will make a Freedom of Information request to cover that off but are aware that the main civic organisations in the town did write in support.

Implications

The Borough has, we believe, made a political misjudgement in not designating Maidenhead Neighbourhood Forum.  An officer has signed the letter, but the political leadership will have been fully aware of what it would be.

It is government policy to support neighbourhood planning, and Esther McVey as Minister for Housing and Planning announced in January that RBWM had been awarded additional funding to support it. So how will a neighbourhood plan now be delivered for the 34% of the Borough’s population that live in Maidenhead? Are there other groups waiting in the wings, ready to tackle smaller parts of the town (and that can muster 21 people in a room at any one time)? Where are those coherent smaller neighbourhood areas that we failed to spot?

Or should the money be declined because the Borough cannot find groups that it approves of?

Doesn’t the council have enough challenges on its plate just now without inviting hostility from one-third of its residents?

Residents could be forgiven for assuming that our council thinks Maidenhead so unimportant that it is not to be allowed to develop, consult and (if passed at referendum) adopt the additional layer of policy an adopted neighbourhood plan can provide.  So Maidenhead gets 70% of all borough-wide local plan (BLP) development, but is refused permission to develop its own set of bespoke policies to complement - not obstruct - the ‘one size fits all’ BLP and protect the town’s character whilst its population grows by c.45%.

It may be worth noting that the current administration is in a minority in our town - 6 Con, 6 LibDem and 2 tBF members. Residents could be forgiven for thinking that the council simply doesn’t care about its largest town and is willing to abandon it to excessive and uncontrolled development, in order to achieve the housing targets and protect the borough’s more reliably Conservative parts.

Next steps

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is currently engaged in a major review of neighbourhood planning policy, and we are already involved as an invited consultee.  We had shared several issues that place grassroots neighbourhood forums at an unfair disadvantage, and we will continue to develop those themes in the light of RBWM’s behaviour.

Should we explore routes to having the decision reversed?  What do you think? Email me at chair@mnf.org.uk

It is difficult to see how any group, MNF or other, can succeed under the current policy settlement without a supportive council.  But many hundreds of people have contributed to our soundings, and we have hard evidence of anger and frustration about what is being done to our town.  We have succeeding in corralling that into some coherent messages but there remains much that could be done.  Maybe we should redirect MNF towards structuring the public debate?

Let me know how you think MNF should proceed - and how you can help.  Email me at chair@mnf.org.uk

In closing, I just feel it's a sad day for grassroots public engagement in the Royal Borough.