Hearing: In Front of the Independent Examiner

The Benenden Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) has now moved to the penultimate stage of the process. Some three and a half years after work commenced, our plan is currently subject to the scrutiny of an independent examiner. The examiner was appointed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) with the agreement of the parish council in January 2021. All independent examiners must be qualified and experienced planning professionals. Their role is to ensure the plan meets all statutory requirements and the basic conditions set out by UK government in various planning acts and via supporting regulations. Examination is a significant test. A professional planning expert is in the process of probing the plan, the development process, and a significant number of contributions from concerned stakeholders, including residents.

Only around 30 per cent of neighbourhood plans decide to allocate specific sites for development. Most NDP groups shy away from this final decision as it is often the most controversial aspect. It is so much easier to leave the tough choices to the local authority. Benenden NDP decided to allocate sites to retain as much control as possible at local level. As a result, our examination has been more complex and the independent examiner received a significant number of objections to our plan from a group who identify themselves as ‘The Friends of East End’ (FOEE).

The examiner decided to hold a public hearing (online via Zoom) to discuss housing allocations proposed for brownfield sites at Benenden Hospital and invited only one representative from interested parties to take part in this. FOEE nominated a barrister to represent them, as did Benenden Healthcare Society. TWBC was represented by its head of planning, KCC by its highways officer and the High Weald AONB management by its senior planning officer. This left Biddenden and Benenden Parish Councils representing themselves.

The public hearing, which took about five hours, addressed six key questions, and a recording of it can be found online via this link. Having studied all the documentation submitted as part of the plan, plus the input from statutory bodies, the evolving guidance from the National Planning Policy Framework, and of course input from those invited to speak at the public hearing, the examiner is now considering his recommendations. His decision is expected at the end of August and the outcome will feature in next month’s edition of this magazine.

If we pass examination the final step is a referendum, where the residents of the parish will make the ultimate decision.

Paul Tolhurst

Chair, Benenden NDP Steering Group www.benendenneighbourhoodplan.org