Birdham: a case study about policy writing


aerial_viewBirdham is a rural community of about 1,500 people located near Chichester. Approximately half of the land area and more than 80% of housing in Birdham lies within the Chichester Harbour Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

While the Parish Council is the qualifying body for the Plan, an autonomous steering group made up of four parish councillors and 4-6 others, plus focus groups, is leading on the delivery of the plan. Local residents are motivated to get involved in the plan because they want greater involvement in planning at a local level and want to suggest sites for development that are best for their village.

Starting out

The group found it hard to start writing their policies. There were only a few other NP policies around when they started out. While the Upper Eden plan was similar in some respects it was very different in key areas: e.g. it’s a multi-parish plan.

open_day_visionHowever the group did understand that they needed to start consulting and engaging residents. They held an open day (supported by AIRS) seeking views on key areas such as:

  • Environment
  • Community
  • Business
  • Transport
  • Drainage (Birdham is flat and surface water drainage has been a big issue)

This was followed up by a questionnaire, which got a good response rate (over 50%) but didn’t provide all the information the group wanted. For example, people made comments about possible development sites, but didn’t link them to specific sites, making it hard to analyse the data. Unsure how to write policies – but aware that that it needed to be done correctly – the group made slow progress for a few months.

Help to move forward

A second open day was held a year after the first, at which the group presented some sketchy, outline policies and sought further help from the local community. Two key helpers came forward:

  • A writer – with the skills to pull together the final plan into a readable, user-friendly document
  • A resident with developer experience – with the understanding of what policies might be needed and the language to use. This included things the group hadn’t thought of, such as a windfall housing policy*.

The group also benefited from support from Planning Aid England (PAE) to establish a clear, focused structure to frame the policy writing. This was:

  • Establishing the vision for the neighbourhood plan
  • Agreeing a set of objectives for seven key areas (heritage, environment, community and leisure, transport, housing, drainage and business)
  • Drafting policies under each objectives, backed by evidence

The PAE support also helped the group look objectively at the evidence gathered and how it should be used and referenced. For example, residents saying “We want this...” isn’t evidence of actual need.

Writing the policies: how they did it

housingSub-groups were formed to work on each of the objectives. The amount of work varied (e.g. the drainage group was restructuring and strengthening existing work, whereas the housing group was starting from scratch). Each sub-group brought drafts back to the full steering group for discussion and following amendments the final versions were handed over to the volunteer “writer” to pull the whole document together.

A key learning point was how to word policies. It’s important to understand that policies can’t be worded in a negative way so that they can be interpreted as blocking development as this will not be compliant with the NPPF. Instead, wording should ideally be framed as “development will be permitted provided that …” or, where objection is necessary, wording should be along the lines of “any proposals to … will be resisted unless …” or “development must avoid/mitigate etc…”.

It’s important to remember all sections of the community when preparing the plan. For example, when drafting housing policies, remember the impact they may have on someone with e.g. a small business. In Birdham three volunteers formed a business group and took on the role of liaising with businesses and drafting a questionnaire tailored for them.

Other volunteers took on roles as “resource investigators”, sourcing evidence and resources which were relevant to the plan’s policies but hadn’t been gathered or recorded systematically. These included:

  • National resources (e.g. Manual for Streets)
  • Evidence from the LPA (e.g. maps showing the AONB and other special areas, and land use)
  • Recent evidence gathered by the LPA as part of its Local Plan process
  • Evidence produced by other groups (e.g. the Birdham Flood Prevention group had been mapping ditches; this information was very valuable for the drainage group)

Challenges along the way

The group found it hard to find time to draft and re-draft the policies. As a group they had different working styles and it took time to gel together; unlike in an office, where people are working together all the time, they were working mainly on their own and fitting it around work and other commitments. They found email an important tool for keeping in touch but this requires commitment to reading and responding promptly, so would advise groups to be clear about what’s expected and how to maintain communication.

The group also had to learn to balance the time spent working on the plan with the time required to keep the local community up to date with progress. Transparency is very important but so was writing and thinking time on the plan.

Top tips

open_day_pre_subThe Birdham group would offer the following advice to other neighbourhood planning groups:

  • Talk to other groups who have passed this stage. How did they overcome problems and what can you learn from them?
  • Be realistic. Birdham suggests it may take two years to write your plan. Make sure you have built in enough time to consult with and engage the community.
  • It is important to create a template of the plan from the outset – so everyone has an outline of what they are working towards.
  • Have a neutral chair for your steering group who can keep everything on track and under control.
  • There will be churn with your volunteers. Accept this and deal with it by bringing in new people.
  • Find someone with great organisational and project management skills to take charge of your events, open days etc.
  • If you intend to use a volunteer writer for your plan, make sure they have the tenacity and perseverance to undertake the task. Collecting and editing material from voluntary groups is quite an arduous and time-consuming assignment.
  • Take advantage of the support that’s out there.
  • Tap into your LPA’s knowledge (e.g. how to word policies) and resources (e.g. data, maps etc).
  • Pay attention to any questionnaires you produce. Test all the questions, and consider how you word them and the information you want to gain from them. Think ahead and be especially careful about how you will collate the data you collect for easy assimilation and presentation.
  • Make friends with people who can take beautiful photos to illustrate your plan and give a sense of place.
  • Don’t be afraid of asking for favours: many people will be happy to do small tasks such as delivering some questionnaires or taking a few photos.

* Windfall sites are ones which come forward unexpectedly rather than being identified for housing through the plan preparation process

Find out more: The Neighbourhood Plan for Birdham

Many thanks to Jane Finch from the Birdham NP Steering Group for 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.

Photo credits

© All photos are copyright Birdham Parish Council