Shaftesbury residents have offered overwhelming endorsement of the town’s Neighbourhood plan proposals. Each policy has been backed by at least 84% of respondents, but some locals want High Street pedestrianisation, stronger climate emergency action and a ban on more estate-building included.
Over the last eighteen months, eight residents have volunteered an estimated 3,000 hours of their time in consulting, researching and writing this weighty, 103-page planning guide. The Neighbourhood Plan should help planners and developers who might be unfamiliar with Shaftesbury understand how residents want their town to evolve.
The plan includes policies that aim to encourage the tourism economy, keep the town’s bypass route clear of housing, preserve Shaftesbury’s green slopes, protect the dark skies and encourage high quality and appropriate building materials.
A leaflet was sent to 4,000 homes and a High Street ‘pop-up shop’ was open for six weeks. These activities were arranged to encourage locals to read the plan and share their opinion of blueprint for the town’s growth to the year 2031.
Stuart Edwards, Vice Chairman of the Neighbourhood Plan, says Shaftesbury has embraced this engagement exercise. “Over 800 visitors to the pop-up shop discussed the plan. We’ve had 226 formal responses, and 473 comments, but obviously a lot of people had the opportunity to talk about the plan informally and to see what was there,” said Stuart.
He is pleased by the level of feedback, compared with Neighbourhood Plan consultations elsewhere. “The Shaftesbury response looks fairly good. We have given everybody the opportunity and many people may have given views that fed into the plan at an earlier stage. We’ve had a lot of discussions and maybe they just felt their view had been taken on board before and they didn’t need to make a response,” he said.
The government body which safeguards listed buildings and ancient monuments has applauded Shaftesbury’s plan. “We had a response from Historic England and we’re a bit chuffed by it,” said Stuart. “They said, ‘We’d like to congratulate your community on its achievement, particularly in the plan’s coverage of heritage issues. It is always pleasing to note when a community values its locally distinctive historical environment, seeks to define what makes it special and to protect and enhance this through tailored policies and proposals.’ That’s quite a ringing endorsement,” said Stuart.
Arguably more significant is the strength of support from residents who have given feedback on the 24 proposed policies. “We asked people whether they agree, disagree or didn’t know about each of the policies and the percentage saying that they agree is very high. I think we take some confidence from that.”
There is a high ‘approval rating’ for each policy, based on residents’ online and paper responses. “Up to 98% and I think the lowest was 84%,” said Stuart. “That’s a very heavy majority saying that they agree with the policies.”
A neighbourhood plan is meant to reflect a community’s wishes. Stuart believes that the level of ongoing consultation has allowed the team to shape policies representative of local opinion. “I’m surprised that the levels of agreement are as high as they are. It’s not that often that you get that level of agreement. That’s encouraging.”
The policy with the lowest ‘approval rating’ was still supported by 84% of respondents. It suggests that any future housing developments should be smaller, infill development, rather than large estates. “I think we all know there is concern over development. We’re not in a position where we can say no more development in absolute terms. It may be that people were looking for a more adamant statement than was realistic to give. We’re trying to influence any development, so it is in keeping with what we probably all want for Shaftesbury and doesn’t destroy its character. Some people may think that we should have gone further,” explained Stuart.
Locals frequently claim that they don’t want any more development. Why couldn’t the Neighbourhood Plan reflect that and say, ‘No more houses in Shaftesbury’? “I think it’d be very difficult to do that in those terms. We’ve got to go through an independent examination of the plan. That examiner will have to be satisfied that our plan is consistent with National Planning Policy and the Local Planning Framework. The risk is that the plan is thrown out or is not approved. If it is not approved, we don’t have any of the protections that the plan gives us. It’s quite important that Shaftesbury does get a Neighbourhood Plan in place as soon as possible.”
There’s a widely held belief that developers, with their budgets and access to legal advice, always get their way. How will this document make a difference? “There is an obligation to take account of it. People making objections to a planning application can refer back to the Neighbourhood Plan. There isn’t a magic answer to this. It should put Shaftesbury in a stronger position to protect itself. It doesn’t mean that the developments people don’t want will never go through in the future,” said Stuart.
In the town centre section, a policy ‘encourages’ developers to consider parking provision and installing electric car charging points. I asked Stuart why the plan doesn’t use stronger words to make bolder demands. “This is about a long-term planning framework. It’s not a document through which one says, ‘This is going to happen here, on this site’. We can’t magic up a piece of land and say, ‘This is going to be compulsorily purchased for a car park’. That’s not within the gift of the Neighbourhood Plan. It’s about trying to create the right context and framework. It’s not about saying, ‘We’re going to build this’ because we’re not in a position to do that.”
Some respondents suggested High Street pedestrianisation in their comments. “I think we are aware that there are views on either side. It’s not necessarily popular with shopkeepers. I don’t think the Neighbourhood Plan eliminates that from happening. We do want things improved for pedestrians. We didn’t feel there was an overall consensus that was the way forward,” he said.
There are residents who have asked for a one-way circuit in the town centre. Stuart says the Neighbourhood Plan team spent time assessing traffic movements. “We had quite a few discussions about it. We discussed options with experts from Dorset County Council. Costs would be involved and there wasn’t one obvious, simple answer. We haven’t gone into a specific solution because I don’t think there was a consensus to do that.”
There was significant support for better bicycle and walking routes. “People want these things to happen. When we looked at our parking policy, one side of that is whether you can improve the supply of parking. The other side is whether one can better manage the demand for parking. Ideally, more people would be cycling or walking to the town centre. There is a lot of support for making that as easy as possible,” said Stuart.
Since this document has been in development, Shaftesbury Town Council and Dorset Council have declared a climate emergency. I asked Stuart about the plan’s environmental credentials. “We have woven things relevant to addressing climate change throughout the plan. Part of the desire to preserve Shaftesbury as a beautiful environment is about the historical environment and a lot of it is about the natural setting and environment. Having looked at consultation feedback, perhaps we can give more emphasis on how things are presented in terms of climate change. Clearly, we need to be consistent with national policies.”
The team doesn’t intend to make major changes to the plan though, because of the high level of agreement with the draft policies. Now the community has been consulted, the plan will be assessed away from Shaftesbury. “It will go back to the Town Council at the end of November, then we hope to have a proposed plan, which needs to go to the Local Planning Authority, Dorset Council. Then it goes to the independent examiner. They need to look at consistency with wider planning and legal frameworks. Subject to that, there is a public referendum,” said Stuart.
At some point in 2020, all Shaftesbury residents on the electoral roll will be encouraged to cast their vote to adopt or reject the plan. Stuart’s team doesn’t require such a high degree of support as seen in the policy consultation. If 51% of locals vote ‘yes’, the Neighbourhood Plan will be adopted and can start influencing how our ancient town’s story unfolds over the next decade.