From Andrew Wood, Planning Officer, Friends of the Peak District
Over the two intense weeks that I participated in the High Peak Local Plan Examination, I learnt an important lesson: I now understand the official meaning of the term 'localism'. It means that a local authority is at liberty to steer its own course on any subject for which there is no government policy; whereas if there is a government policy then the local authority cannot diverge from it. For example, if High Peak wanted to set higher standards for the design and efficiency of new housing than are set out in the Building Regulations, it probably couldn't. If a community wants to produce a Neighbourhood Plan, it can do so as long as none of its policies clash with national policy.
The trouble is that High Peak has a unique geography which is incredibly difficult for Whitehall policy geeks to cater for: I can't think of another Borough in the country which occupies such a narrow strip of hilly frontier territory squeezed between a National Park and a major conurbation. Sure, it has its share of 'normal' problems, like dereliction, traffic congestion and a lack of affordable homes, and it should be expected to take a 'normal' approach to tackling them. But it is an unusual place, so why shouldn't it pursue unusual policies?
The biggest weakness of the draft High Peak Local Plan is that too much of the evidence it’s built on is open to challenge – both from developers and from communities. Friends of the Peak District has been critical of the gaps in how evidence of affordable housing need and employment forecasts have been applied to policy-making. As a result, the community simply can't understand where the housebuilding numbers – which we think are excessive – have come from?
This is a criticism of the Council and of their draft Local Plan, but it's also what happens when decision-makers regard computer modelling and numerical scenarios as being 'evidence' compared to the concerns of communities, which they regard as 'opinion'. When you read reports such as the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) you find a great deal of opinion in them, and equally if an opinion is widely held by the community that must surely count as evidence.
I've already said too much about housing numbers: let's talk about climate change instead. What would a climate change policy for the High Peak look like if it was really informed by its unique geography and the ‘evidence’ of local opinion? I suspect it wouldn’t be the reactive policy we see in the currently proposed draft Plan which tries to persuade new developments to bolt in a few of the mechanics of climate response, like renewable energy and sustainable drainage. I think, instead, it would take each settlement, each landscape, each transport route, each sector of employment, each public service and each river in the Borough, and ask, "What needs to change to genuinely reduce carbon emissions and respond to a changing climate? How do we know the local community agrees with this analysis? And what can the Local Plan do to help make those changes?"
Of course, that would be a very different type of Local Plan, but it would be genuinely local.