They have taken a little while to take off but now it seems that everyone is doing it. We are talking Neighbourhood Plans, the new big idea in the planning system that gives local people a say in how their area is developed. That at least is the theory. Residents of Burnham on Sea will by now have had poll cards for a referendum on Thursday 20th September. This is the end of a long and hideously complex process which will see a new plan adopted for Burnham and Highbridge – but only if you vote for it.
And before you go out and vote, you really should try and read it. “Try” in the kindest possible way because it is a vast and complex document filled with jargon almost designed to make it impenetrable to someone without a degree in plannerspeak.
We took a look at the background documents in the plan. Consultation was widespread, there were articles in the press, information in the library. They really did try hard to get public engagement, the trouble is there seems to have been a large degree of apathy.
Responses to the plan in progress, were sought from the Statutory Consultees, the Chamber of Commerce, Historic England, and oddly, a consultant working for one of the landowners of a large plot of land scheduled for development. Members of the public were invited to give their views too – but the number of residents of Burnham who felt moved to do so numbered precisely 26. There responses on various subjects are analysed with percentages and all sorts of detail, but with only 26 responses it feels a bit over the top.
The plan itself is undoubtedly the end product of an enormous amount of hard work. But it is not for the faint hearted and for the most part is a bit like wading through treacle. For instance if you are ;looking for an executive summary you’ll search in vain. It took until page 31 (yes you did read that correctly) to find something like it under the title “Vision for Central Burnham”. To spare you the agony of reading through so much here is that summary:
By 2032, the area will be central to all aspects of community life. A centre not just for retail, business and eating out but, in addition, for cultural and social, recreational and leisure pursuits.
It will recognise that there are an increasing number of town centre residents whose quality of life needs to be balanced with the town’s retail and leisure offer.
It will celebrate its Victorian heritage, preserving what is the best and building on this by redevelopments which are sympathetic to the scale and style of the existing built environment, whilst not hindering the establishment of a modern shopping and leisure experience. It will recognise that shopping habits have changed and that a successful centre needs the right mix of shops, restaurants, leisure and cultural facilities – all within an improved public realm which enhances the appeal to customers. This mix creates the ambience of the area – charm, friendliness, character and accessibility.
By improving the experience of residents and visitors, the area will have become a “destination” – a place worth visiting for the quality of the retail area and the walks along the Esplanade, which will be better linked to the retail area.
The Princess Theatre will be the hub of cultural life in the centre and, potentially, be part of a group of public buildings with the adjacent Learning Centre and Library linked by a new public space, thus creating a northern focus to the Town Centre – the “Town Square”.
At the southern end of town the Pier St. /South Esplanade car park is the entrance to the town for many visitors. There is potential for mixed-use redevelopment while preserving car and coach parking.
The Esplanade will be attractive to residents and visitors, emphasising the quality of the historic environment and implementing the policies of the approved Conservation Area management plan to improve the street scene.
A town that balances being a “sea side town” with being a “town by the sea”.
Is that what you want for Burnham on Sea? Perhaps it is. After the whole point of a Neighbourhood Plan is that you the residents get some degree of control.
But what about affordable homes? A topic of vital interest to every community in Somerset, it merits just one paragraph in the whole plan (its on page 53 by the way). Blink and you would miss it. The idea is that on brownfield sites just 15% of housing would have to be affordable (it is at least 30% for greenfield sites) it is almost laughable.
In this easily overlooked paragraph, so little is the importance placed on affordable housing by the plan as a whole, that it effectively prices local people out of buying a house in their own town. That doesn’t seem to be part of the vision or the ideas behind the plan – but that is what the plan will do.
At the end of the day it is down to the residents of Burnham, if this is what you want, now you can have your say. But if you intend to vote, it would be a good idea to leave plenty of time to read this document before you get to vote. It is 64 pages long and you have just 11 days to read it. So if you want to know what you are voting for you’ll need to be reading just about 6 pages of planning speak a day between now and when the polls open.
As to the vote, this is a simple majority. That means that if only 3 of you vote and 2 are in favour, the plan can be brought into force. Only taxpayers from within the area covered by the plan will get to vote and you should already have received a voting card for the September 20th poll. If you have not and you believe you should be eligible to vote then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org