Headcorn: gathering evidence for your Neighbourhood Plan using surveys


Headcorn_village_signHeadcorn is rural village in the Low Weald of Kent, eight miles from Maidstone. It has 1,600 households (3,700 people) and is well served with a primary school, shops, restaurants, a GP surgery etc. There are 143 businesses in Headcorn.

Located seven miles from the M20, Headcorn also has a station with trains to London. The LPA has assigned Headcorn “rural service centre” status and is looking to allocate housing over the next 15-20 years. Headcorn is on the River Beult, an SSSI, and there is some flood risk.

Understanding the need for a robust evidence base

Headcorn Parish Council supports suitable expansion of the village. However, they are keen to influence that development, to ensure it meets the evolving needs of residents and businesses in the parish, and are therefore working to introduce a neighbourhood plan. The PC sought volunteers to work on the neighbourhood plan and particular to lead on the evidence gathering that would need to be done before policies could be drafted. Two volunteers, Rebecca Driver and Michael Jefferys, are leading on the plan.

Using surveys to help form the evidence base

The Headcorn team were clear that they wanted to do the thinking for their neighbourhood plan themselves, and to gather as much evidence as possible about Headcorn, in order to produce an effective plan. They felt that focus groups were not the best way to get residents’ views, as they can be subject to bias and there is a risk that only the “usual suspects” volunteer to take part. For a neighbourhood plan it is important to hear from the whole community. Surveys provided an opportunity to contact as many people and businesses as possible, as well as looking into specific issues, such as traffic.

Things to think about before starting out

Library_buildingHere’s some advice from Rebecca and Michael to think about before carrying out a survey:

  • Decide who to survey. Do you want one survey per household or per individual? What is your age cut-off? In Headcorn they wanted to contact everyone over 14, to capture a range of views including those from the younger generation.
  • Think about how much personal data you need. Where different groups may have a different point of view, it would be worth capturing which group people belong to in order to get a richer picture of what is driving the results and to make sure your results are representative. In Headcorn's context, for example, age, housing tenure and employment status were useful indicators. However, remember that asking for too many details (e.g. income), may put people off completing the survey.
  • Data protection. People will want to know what’s happening to their answers and how secure any information they provide is. For example, Headcorn plan to destroy paper surveys after their plan is made.
  • Make it anonymous. You don’t need people’s names, but it might be helpful to give each household a unique number, to allow you to eliminate double counting when asking questions about future housing need.
  • Keep your data secure. Think about how you will store and back up your data, and who will have access to it.
  • Make the survey relevant using question logic. Make it so that only relevant people answer certain questions. So, for example, if you have a question about where people work, only ask those who have already indicated they work.
  • Promote your survey(s). Headcorn volunteers went door-knocking, with a flier, to tell people about the surveys and find out which residents wanted a paper survey delivered.
  • Use online tools as much as possible. A web-based tool such as SurveyMonkey is easy to use, saves time inputting data and costs about £200 a year.
  • …but offer an alternative. In Headcorn, they found that many of the elderly residents preferred a paper form. When complete, these were collected by volunteers or could be dropped at the Post Office. However, remember, these responses then all need to be input into your survey tool and checked – this takes time.
  • Test your survey. If your testers don’t understand a question, the question is the problem not your testers – reword it!

Residents’ survey

Church_Walk_cottages797 people completed Headcorn’s residents’ survey (204 by paper and the rest online). This is a response rate of over 27%. A presentation by Rebecca summarising the survey findings and giving an idea of the questions asked is online (pdf). Things to consider when carrying out this kind of survey include:

  • Put the important questions first. Headcorn put key questions about the vision for the future, what people value about Headcorn, and the opportunities and threats of development first.
  • Use questions that can be repeated over time to measure change. E.g. a scale rating about perception of the village.
  • Get people to make tough choices. This will give a better sense of priorities. For example, if you give them a set of options, only let them choose 3-5 (not all of them!).
  • Provide reference points. E.g. if asking what scale of development people would like to see, get them to compare it with the last 20yrs and ask if they would like less/the same/more. You want to avoid a situation where the answer is “no development” as neighbourhood plans are about shaping and influencing development.
  • Feedback. Let people know your findings and how they will be used in your neighbourhood plan. Presentations and meetings can also be a useful way to gain extra information.

Business survey

ShopThe business survey was carried out in the same way as the residents’ one but was shorter with 18 questions. There was a 35.7% response rate. The Headcorn team made use of the existing good links with the local business community and a business directory, compiled by Michael, covering all the business in the Parish, the rural services centre area (5km radius from village centre) and the parliamentary ward.

The business survey (pdf) provided valuable data about what businesses want and need. For example, the supply of housing and labour was not seen as a problem for expansion, but drainage infrastructure was.

Estate agent survey

This survey (pdf, part of the presentation to residents) was carried out differently as it wasn’t done online but by interviews. All seven interviewees were asked the same questions, but the interview format allowed the volunteer asking the questions to diverge from the set list if beneficial. In Headcorn, the small numbers mean that the results are not statistically significant, but what is interesting is that they mirrored many of the findings from the residents’ survey, particularly the view that individual developments should be small scale.

If you want to carry out some face to face interviews, remember to allow sufficient time (each interview took 30 minutes to an hour, plus preparation and write up). Interviews also need to be booked in advance.

Traffic survey

A team of 35 volunteers, led by Michael, carried out traffic surveys (pdf, part of the presentation to residents) on Tuesdays and Thursday over two consecutive weeks during the school term. The days were broken into hourly sections and volunteers recorded the types of vehicles, traffic flow and direction. Michael produced a briefing note for the volunteer team in advance, and provided a face to face briefing if required.

Top tips

  • Always start with positive questions, before moving to things that worry people – they will find it easier to focus on the benefits
  • Questions need to be neutral – never lead by inferring the answer within the question. So, not “Do you agree X is terrible?” but “How do you rate X?”
  • Consider forcing people to choose between two competing options to give clearer priorities (e.g. large gardens versus affordable homes)
  • Ask questions to allow you to understand where you are, as well as questions about the future
  • Consider asking questions even when you think you know the answer – that will give you the evidence to back your choices (or force you to rethink)
  • Use open-ended questions sparingly. It’s powerful to be able to say “X% of residents think...” and can be hard to pick out common themes if you have lots of written answers to go through.
  • Encourage online responses, but always offer another option so that you reach as many people as possible
  • Always test out your questions and question logic with other people before launching the survey

Related documents and links

Headcorn Matters

Headcorn Neighbourhood Plan high level objectives (pdf)

Headcorn survey findings presentation (pdf)

Headcorn business survey findings presentation (pdf)

Many thanks to Rebecca Driver and Michael Jefferys for their help with this case study. These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality.