UPPER Eden residents made history when they voted overwhelmingly in favour of creating their own neighbourhood development plan.
Backed by a 90 per cent ‘Yes’ vote from the electorate of Kirkby Stephen, Brough, and 15 surrounding parishes, members of the group who championed the process said they were committed to working with district council planners to put their ideas into practice.
The Upper Eden Neighbourhood Development Plan has been designed to pick up on areas of planning law that parishes have highlighted as weaknesses, or where the system seemed unfair.
These include making it easier for local people to self-build affordable homes, for farmers to provide more housing for their family or business needs, and to help older people find suitable properties.
And fundamentally it gives much greater weight to the views of the parishes keen to preserve the character of their community.
Tom Woof, who has led the project and is chairman of the Upper Eden Community Plan Steering Group, said he hoped the result of the UK’s first localism referendum would make a real difference to people’s lives.
“We won’t know exactly what the impact will be for a couple of years. When an appropriate application comes through, it will be considered by the parish council and that will be the first test of the plan.”
He said the document, which was almost two years in the making, was not a ‘NIMBY’s charter’, but pro-development.
The referendum has given it equal weighting to other planning documents, and in cases of non-strategy takes precedence.
Solicitor Alex Birtles from Kirkby Stephen Town Council explained some of the ways the plan can help locals in a practical way.
“It emerged from the parishes that development was limited by very restrictive policies,” he said.
“Now we have a system where each parish is enabled to grow at a rate of one per cent per year.
“Because of this the impact of the plan is going to be felt to a greater extent in the villages than the bigger towns.
“We found in Kirkby Stephen that if you had a proposal for a fairly large scale development, for example one we had for 60 houses at the far end of town, when we said to district council planners that it seemed like an over-development and out of proportion we were told that this is what we were stuck with.
“Now parishes can have more influence over developments being in-keeping with the town’s character.
“Another big improvement is addressing how difficult it was under the regime to justify self-build affordable houses to planners which will now be allowed where a need and an opportunity can be proved.”
Mr Woof said other policies will allow farmers to change the use of buildings for accommodation and address an anomaly in housing density.
“Under the old system there were fairly odd circumstances where a house was proposed on a plot of land in a village. Because the plot was a certain size, the council would say there needed to be six houses.
“It led to a few schemes being turned down or inappropriate plans being put forward which were not the result of anyone’s ambition. It was almost like it was whatever figures the computer came up with.”
He said where the views of parish councils was previously a ‘material consideration’, and in practice were often overlooked, the views of locals will earn ‘significant weight’.
“It is the first time such a thing has been put into policy,” he said.
Pat Jones from Brough Parish Council said planners were ‘understandably nervous’ but they will work together to set out the guidelines going forward.
“It was certainly not a challenge to planners,” she said. “Having planning minister Nick Boles and communities minister Don Foster up here brought the issue to the fore for a lot of people. We were very happy with the turnout.”
Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart congratulated the group behind the plan on their success.
"This is the latest in a string of firsts for Cumbria,” he said. “In the last two years we’ve been the first Big Society pilot, the first national broadband pilot and we’ve built a unique affordable housing scheme in Crosby Ravensworth.
“But this is the most ambitious project to date. By giving planning power to local parishes, it delivers something fundamental; the ability to shape your home environment.
“It is the key to affordable housing, to the next generation of farming, to small businesses, and to preserving the beauty of an area we all love. I couldn’t be happier.”
The plan will be incorporated by Eden District Council officially on April 11.
Leader of the council Gordon Nicolson said he was ‘delighted’ on the referendum result.
“I do hope that local people will now submit planning applications and we look forward to dealing with them,” he said.
“That is how the communities will benefit as the housing they want will be built in places they want to live.”
Planning and Economy portfolio holder Coun Malcolm Smith, said: “I am sure the local community will take up the benefits this plan will open up for them with their planning applications.
“I would like to congratulate everyone, including the 17 parishes for the effort they put in to achieve this unique and positive result.”
Hundreds of councils nationwide are set to follow in the footsteps of trailblazing Upper Eden with plans in the pipeline.
Mr Stewart asked any other parishes that are interested in developing their own neighbourhood plan to get in touch with his office.