Pushing the boundaries: lessons from St Ives

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One of the joys of neighbourhood planning is its flexibility. Qualifying bodies can decide how ambitious they want their plans to be and how many issues are covered. There is also significant untapped freedom to push the boundaries of what planning decisions can influence. The St Ives neighbourhood plan has caught the headlines for tackling the impact of second homes and holiday lets though its Policy H2 stating "new open market housing, excluding replacement dwellings, will only be supported where there is a restriction to secure its occupancy as a Principal Residence".  The policy has already stood up at appeal when a decision to retain a planning condition preventing use of a new dwellings as a second home or holiday let was upheld.

The approach has been picked up elsewhere in Cornwall with the St Minver and Rame Peninsula plans securing support at referendum.  A recent Neighbourhood Planners.London conference also kicked off a discussion as to the relevance of the approach in parts of the capital experiencing high levels of absentee landlords. 

This kind of policy innovation does not happen on a whim.  St Ives passed both independent referendum and the scrutiny of the High Court.  This confirmed the significant discretion for neighbourhood planners and the examination process.  The policy rested not only on popular support but, crucially, also on a strong evidence base and the means for it to be delivered.  The Inspector upholding the St Ives appeal confirmed the policy wording was reasonably precisely worded and enforceable - both key NPPF tests for all planning policy writers.

As with all good neighbourhood planning policies Policy H2 is grounded in the ambitions of the community and has a clear objective - to safeguard the sustainability of the settlements in the St Ives NDP area, whose communities are being eroded through the amount of properties that are not occupied on a permanent basis.  The policy also had a clear justification - in 2011, 25% dwellings in the NDP area were not occupied by a resident household - a 67% increase from 2001. Over this same period, housing stock in the NDP grew by 684 or 16%, but the resident population grew by only 270 or 2.4% and the number of resident households grew by less than 6%. The growth in housing stock in the NDP area between 2001 and 2011 was double the average across England. This provided the evidence of need for a policy adapted to the particular circumstances of St Ives (and potentially other areas with similar evidence) and thereby met the purpose of neighbourhood planning to respond to local circumstances.

The St Ives Plan is also clear in its definition.  "Principal residences" are defined as "those occupied as the residents' sole or main residence, where the residents spend the majority of their time when not working away from home".  This provides the basis for the policy being enforced.  The policy even includes the following "Occupiers of homes with a Principal Residence condition will be required to keep proof that they are meeting the obligation or condition, and be obliged to provide this proof if/when Cornwall Council requests this information. Proof of Principal Residence is via verifiable evidence which could include, for example (but not limited to) residents being registered on the local electoral register and being registered for and attending local services (such as healthcare, schools etc)."

Neighbourhood planners should take succour from the success of the St Ives policy.  The combination of the Basic Conditions, developers threatening High Court challenges and local authorities urging caution can make it appear that neighbourhood planners are walking a tightrope.  But with clear evidence and the conviction of a well-motivated community there are opportunities aplenty for policy innovation and new thinking.  What's your idea?

Prepared by Tony Burton - free range neighbourhood planner, convener of Neighbourhood Planners.London and an Examiner. He can be found on twitter at @Tony4Place