Examination passed. Now for the referendum

I’m very pleased to announce that after a very thorough process, we have now passed the Independent Examination stage – a review by a fully qualified and accredited independent examiner to ensure our Neighbourhood Development Plan meets Local and National Planning guidelines.  He scrutinised our plan closely and held a public hearing specifically to look at the proposed development sites at East End.  And his verdict?  A big thumbs-up.

He recognised the hard work and professionalism of the NDP team, saying: “I congratulate Benenden Parish Council on producing this locally distinctive neighbourhood plan.  It is clear that a lot of hard work has been carried out by a group of volunteers who have taken on what some may feel has been a thankless task.”

He approved all four sites that were allocated for housing in the plan, satisfied that the NDP had adopted a robust and objective assessment of the sites that were put forward:“I have found the basis for the decisions taken have been robust and based on sound planning principles, particularly the extent concentrating development on brownfield sites …”

This was a major hurdle cleared, but the final obstacle will be a local referendum, organised by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, at which you will have your chance to vote.

Of course I will urge you to vote ‘Yes’.  Many of you, and your friends and neighbours, have worked on the NDP, or have read the material and provided feedback.  You may not be happy with every aspect of it, but we believe it represents the best balance of the parish’s wishes with the planning rules and guidelines from local and national government.

Being left with no plan is not a good option.  Biddenden has no Neighbourhood Plan, and now it faces the same foe as Sissinghurst.  The same development promoter has applied for permission for over 60 houses at North Street, on a field just north of the main junction, east of the A274. Biddenden Parish Council is now busily considering its own NDP.  I hope they can get it done in time.

Sissinghurst fought hard against the building of around 65 new houses on Common Road.  The development promoter first applied for planning permission in 2010, and following a long, hard legal battle, planning permission was finally granted in 2015.  As the fields opposite the new primary school in Sissinghurst gradually disappeared under houses, Benenden Parish Council opted to create the village’s own NDP, because without one, our local fields and views are at risk to speculative developers.

Local authorities must have an up-to-date plan for a five-year housing supply and must be able to show that they are consistently delivering against that plan every year. If not, national planning guidelines presume that applications for new housing should be supported.  TWBC is updating its Local Plan, but our parish council felt it better that we get on with our own plan sooner rather than rely on TWBC.  Our NDP would count as legitimate planning policies and be given due weight in future planning decisions.

The beginning of a long journey

We started work in autumn 2017.  We formed an NDP Steering Group including parish councillors and sought volunteers.  Around25 people from Benenden, Iden Green and East End stepped up.  With an experienced planner on board we gathered information and opinions from residents through workshops, exhibitions and drop-in sessions.  We commissioned work from children at Benenden Primary School, surveyed local employers and employees.We met landowners and developers, and local lobby groups.  We talked to key public bodies, notably the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) management unit.  We walked footpaths, assessed views and prospective development sites, and surveyed housing styles across the parish.  Above all we read, discussed and digested huge volumes of Government planning guidelines.

The parish council determined to allocate sites for potential development.  This is rare amongst NDPs: recommending sites for housing is frequently controversial.  Over 20 sites for housing were submitted by Benenden’s landowners (vs four sites at Goudhurst, and none at Bidborough).  Allocating our own sites means that we retain some control rather than leaving decisions to people who live and work in Tunbridge Wells.

We’ve been able to keep you up to date with the process and ask for your feedback throughout.  We used the Benenden Magazine, posted material on our website (www.benendenneighbourhoodplan.org), and built a 500-plus email subscriber list.  Once the first phase was complete we held a public meeting to share our thinking and launch a six-week consultation on our ‘Rough Draft’.  Over 140 residents attended the meeting in early 2019 or provided feedback.We conducted our first phase of formal consultation later that year.  A sub-committee of the Parish Council and NDP Steering Group reviewed your feedback and made appropriate changes.  In the midst of the pandemic we held further consultation from October to December 2020.  Your further input was again crucial in honing the plan.

So, what does the NDP Propose?

Policies to protect 11 important local green spaces and 20 fabulous views across the High Weald.  Policies to safeguard our precious dark skies, the local habitat, and support for local employment.  Policies to ensure that any new development respects and reflects the distinctive look and feel of buildings across the parish.  Policies that secure a mix of affordable and market housing, in line with residents’ input.  Development of up to 100 homes in four sites over the plan period to 2038, which means roughly 1% growth each year.

I leave you with the words of the examiner: “Overall I am satisfied that the plan will contribute to the delivery of sustainable development within the Benenden Parish.  The scale and type of housing will meet the social objective of ensuring sufficient homes for the present and future generations, providing for high quality design, which is in keeping with the character of the built environment set in a wonderful landscape, whilst seeking to protect existing businesses and commercial areas and providing for the necessary infrastructure, whilst at the same time making best use of brownfield sites, minimising the use of greenfield sites, protecting the landscape and the parish’s fine views, especially from the ridgelines, and protecting the green spaces that are valued by the community”.

Paul Tolhurst
Chair, Benenden NDP Steering Group www.benendenneighbourhoodplan.org