Communities have been urged not to pause work to formally adopt blueprints for future local development, with an MP warning that the delays could be exploited by speculative developers.
Efforts to devise and ratify neighbourhood plans in localities around south Suffolk have faced significant disruption, as towns and villages divert attention and resources to responding to the coronavirus crisis.
The documents, which must be approved via a public referendum before being adopted, are seen as a way to help communities influence how their area grows, by formally allocating what sites are appropriate for development.
South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge, who hosted a neighbourhood planning meeting at Hadleigh Town Hall in 2018, attended by representatives from 38 towns and villages, said it is imperative that work on these plans continues, despite the challenges of the current pandemic.
“I appreciate that developing a neighbourhood plan in any circumstances is time consuming and, with coronavirus involved, the job is that much harder,” he said.
“Nevertheless, the risk is that speculative developers will take advantage in the interim to push through development that would not have progressed with a completed neighbourhood plan in place.
“It has been confirmed to me by both Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, and John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council, that the key parts of a neighbourhood plan can still proceed, making as much use as possible of virtual consultation.
“Critically, it is not possible to hold a referendum because of social distancing rules, but where a neighbourhood plan reaches that far, even without the vote going ahead to formally sign it off, the plan would carry weight with the planning inspectorate.
"In contrast, it would appear a number of neighbourhood plans in the making have been paused at a stage where they would have no legal impact.
“My strong advice to communities preparing a neighbourhood plan is, therefore, to keep going, so that they earn their community a greater say in future development.”
In the Babergh area, the most recent communities to adopt a neighbourhood plan are Aldham and Elmsett, in January.
Published by the Suffolk Free Press.