Villagers in Walton are blazing a trail to protect themselves against developers. Sharon Dale reports.
Protection against unwanted and unsuitable development is proving hard to find as the government pushes ahead with ambitious housebuilding targets.
While many communities feel powerless, a village near Wakefield is set to become the first in Yorkshire to officially arm itself to the hilt.
Walton has put together a Neighbourhood Plan, which has just received approval from a government inspector and Wakefield Council. On December 3 there will be a village referendum to decide whether to formally adopt it.
The outcome should be a resounding “yes”, according to the parish council, which has spent two years preparing the legal document. The time, effort and expertise needed to formulate a Neighbourhood Plan explains why so few areas have them, even though it was introduced in the government’s Localism Act in 2012.
The idea is to devolve power to local communities and give hamlets, villages or small areas within a town the ability to influence the planning system by formulating their own policies and guidelines that developers must take note of.
“It enables us to take back some control from the bigger planning bodies. It allows us to have a say and that say carries legal weight,” says Liz Fairclough, chair of the parish council.
The catalyst for Walton Parish Council’s Neighbourhood Plan was the threat of large-scale and “inappropriate” development. It set up a steering group and was fortunate to have the help of well-informed experts from the village.
Helen Massey, a parish councillor, is a chartered surveyor, David Rolinson is a planning consultant at Spawforths and Philip Roebuck heads the residential development team at Cushman & Wakefield.
The first job was to apply for funding. The parish council put some money in the pot and applied for grants from various organisations including Planning Aid. Then they had to create a questionnaire and canvas residents on what aspects of the village were important to them, the concerns they had and what improvements they would like to see.
“There are 3,000 villagers and we got a 30 per cent return rate, which doesn’t sound like much but it is much higher than average,” says Helen.
Documents were drafted, re-drafted and then scrutinised by an independent examiner, who was very impressed.
“We have had to learn as we went along,” said David Rolinson “We produced questionnaires, ran exhibitions, held School Visioning Days and met hundreds of people to ensure that the Plan reflects the views and aspirations of the community.”
It is a laborious process and only 57 have been adopted.
“There are plenty in the pipeline but we are the first in Yorkshire,” says Helen.
Although it may not stop the village from ever being expanded, the plan will afford protection.
“It does not enable us to say a blanket ‘no’ to development but we can make sure it is the right kind of development built in a way that the community is happy with. It’s an extra piece of planning legislation. There is a site that has planning permission for a care home and that would be useful for the village but we have stated that we wouldn’t want the land to be used for anything else,” says Helen, who adds that Wakefield Council has been very supportive.
The Plan protects Waterton Park and the heritage of the village its green belt and countryside but it also supports small-scale housing that reflects the local character. There is also a “wish list” if funds become available through the community infrastructure levy paid by developers. It includes footpaths, wildlife corridors and digital bus stops.
Walton Parish Council is urging other areas under threat of development to follow its lead.
“Members of our steering group have worked tirelessly to get to this stage,” says Helen. “We have had to jump through many hoops to get so far but it has been worth it. I’d recommend that other areas do it but it takes passion.”
*For details visit www.waltonplan.co.uk