Published: December 5, 2012
Councillors clash over plans for new Burnham Neighbourhood Plan

Town councillors have clashed this week during a heated debate on whether Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge a new £25,000 Neighbourhood Plan.

The new policy would provide residents with the ability to decide the future shape of the two towns, from choosing where new homes, shops and offices are built, to having a say on what new buildings should look like.

The Town Council formed a working party earlier this year to start work on the new policy document after securing £20,000 of funding for the work - which includes £10,000 for a local referendum to ask residents whether the plan is wanted.

But when Cllr Helen Groves presented a report on the benefits of the scheme during Monday's meeting - and recommended that £25,000 be set aside over two years to compile and agree the plan - the proposals received mixed reactions.

"I've been against this from day one - Sedgemoor already has high-level policies in place to determine planning decisions," said Cllr Bill Hancock. "We will simply be following our own tails and getting nothing back - it will be a disaster."

Cllr Neville Jones added: "To be a success, a Neighbourhood Plan needs high engagement and widespread support and I don't see this so far."

"The costs in setting up the Plan could run to £100,000 or even £200,000 - the figures are so vague at the moment and the benefits seem to be aimed at Highbridge rather than all of our towns."

Mayor Ken Smout added: "A lot of work has been done by the working party and I am certainly not against a Neighbourhood Plan, but there are a lot of issues to be considered here. The money is available to do it, but there are lots of other things that are needed in our towns and I am not convinced this is the best way forward."

Cllr Peter Burridge-Clayton added: "We would need to be sure about what level of control would be delivered by the Plan. I am not convinced that we'd be able to make a real difference."

Cllr Chris Williams said: "The plan has to cover the whole of the parish and must be there for all residents."

Cllr Groves said she has already spoken to over 400 residents and gained plenty of positive feedback on the proposals. "The question of whether residents want the Plan would go to a referendum and it would need at least 50 per cent support to proceed."

Cllr Burridge-Clayton proposed that the Town Council seek clarification from Sedgemoor District Council on whether 'Supplementary Planning Documents' can deliver some or all of the benefits in the proposed Neighbourhood Plan.

Councillors accepted the proposal and decided to defer a decision on whether to proceed with the Plan until after Sedgemoor's response.

"It's vitally important that we get this right and find the right route forward, especially when spending taxpayers' money," added Cllr Burridge-Clayton.

But Town Council Lib Dem leader Cllr Phil Harvey told after the meeting: "It is surprising that, months after receiving a £20k grant as a pathfinder Council for Neighbourhood Planning, and weeks after receiving a report from a steering group advocating it, Conservative and Independent town councillors should unite in delaying the process."

"Ostensibly, this is to seek clarification from Sedgemoor District Council about Supplementary Planning Documents - despite these being explained in our report. I fear that it may be a device to delay the decision to the budget meeting where they can argue that the Town Council can't afford it."

"In fact we have £90,000 in a reserved budget for 'working with other authorities' and the best estimate of costs is £25k. Surely enabling local people to determine the future development of our towns - within the constraints of the Planning Core strategy and Sedgemoor's guidelines - is worth that? I urge local residents to let us know what they think."

Cllr Groves added: "I am deeply disappointed by this decision and the lack of understanding demonstrated by the debate that surrounded this. A Neighbourhood Plan is a powerful legislative tool which could empower our communities - rather than councillors for the next decade - and I believe would be to the benefit of all."

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