WORK is under way on a document that will change the face of Morpeth over the next 20 years.
The Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan will be a key part in determining where development can take place in the area, and just as importantly, where it can not.
It will not only relate to Morpeth, but will also take in the neighbouring parishes of Pegswood, Hepscott, Hebron and Mitford.
Housing, employment, transport, education, sport and leisure will all be covered in the document, along with the need to protect the environment and heritage.
And the local community is sitting right at the heart of the process.
Residents are already working in groups to set out the main issues and options, which will be put out to public consultation later this year, and the final draft will need to be approved in a referendum in order to be adopted.
Steering Group Chairman Ken Brown said: “This is the most important thing that has happened in this town for a long, long time.
“It is about putting all the effort and time into this plan that would normally be spent on fighting lots of different applications, such as the ongoing situation in Loansdean where there are plans for housing. If we had the Neighbourhood Plan in place now and it said that development should not take place there, that struggle would not be happening.
“But the content is not what I am deciding. The content of the plan is being directed by the people of Morpeth. The detail of the planning process and everything that emerges from it will be determined by the people of the town.”
It was a year ago this month that Morpeth Town Council was awarded ‘frontrunner’ status to develop such a plan and in October the work began.
Local residents were invited to join four topic groups, looking at housing, the economy, heritage and environment.
It was evident that there were a number of cross-cutting themes so further groups were formed to look at education, transport, infrastructure and sport and leisure.
Vice-Chairman of the Steering Group Graeme Trotter said: “People ask us ‘will the plan have any clout?’ and the answer is yes, it will. If a developer wants to build houses they will have to look at the Neighbourhood Plan. If the site they want is not allocated for housing they can’t do it. If that’s not clout I don’t know what is.
“The plan is like an eight-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Everything is connected to everything else.
“For example, the housing group has learned that without doubt the main reason for people buying houses in Morpeth is the good local schools. That shows the link between housing and education.
“There are people in Morpeth who have lived here for generations, but over half of the people in Morpeth have moved into the area. There has to be something that has pulled them here. It is all connected.”
The topic groups, which are all voluntary, have been tasked with researching their particular subject, gathering evidence to support proposals, identifying the key people or organisations who need to be involved, highlighting issues of concern and considering how suggestions link in with other policies.
The housing group is looking at market conditions, local needs and possible sites, while the economic group is researching existing strengths and weaknesses in the local economy, future employment land requirements, potential sites and issues around the town centre.
Other groups are establishing the nature and extent of local heritage and environmental concerns, and identifying ways to protect them.
Local people are lending their professional expertise to draw up reports, including Chairman of Governors at Abbeyfields First School Colin Pearson, who presented a study on educational needs.
Mr Trotter said: “This was an enormous piece of work, very comprehensive and very well written. If we went to a consultant it would have cost thousands of pounds for something like this.”
Mr Brown added: “Morpeth is the type of town where a lot of professional people have chosen to live and right across the topic groups there are a small group of experts in the town who are contributing towards this plan. It means that the final plan will be pretty detailed.
“The first Neighbourhood Plan that went through a referendum was Upper Eden Valley, but it was quite superficial and not very high level. It is nowhere near as ambitious as the one we are developing here.”
It is hoped that other research coming out of the process can be used to show potential investors the need for amenities, such as performance space or leisure facilities.
The steering group is also tapping into a transport network review of the town commissioned by Northumberland County Council and the plan will be closely linked to the authority’s Core Strategy process, which will be used to form countywide policies.
In addition, neighbouring parish councils are getting involved. Mr Brown said: “The rural parishes are interested in Morpeth as a service centre and they are all involved as part of the steering group.
“The biggest implications are for Pegswood. There are aspirations there that it should develop a centre of its own and it should be an area of growth, that housing growth should be shared between Morpeth and Pegswood.
“Housing should be provided across the whole plan area, not just in Morpeth town, and the same is true of the economic and heritage work.”
Developers, land owners and community organisations are all invited to take part in the process, but the community is key and there is still plenty of time for local people to get involved.
They can join some of the working groups, sign up to receive information, or take part in online polls, surveys and workshops.
“I think people will get more out of it if they come to meetings on a regular basis, but their support can be active or passive,” said Mr Brown.
“They can go along to meetings and volunteer to do bits of work, or talk about the needs of Morpeth and various issues, or they can just sit back and look at the website and read the reports as they are produced.
“We don’t want to get to the referendum stage and have the plan turned down. We want as many people as possible to be involved in the process so they get what they want.”
About 70 residents are actively involved in the process, while 150 have registered to receive information.
Work is ongoing with schools to encourage more young people to get involved.
“There are some initial ideas emerging,” said Mr Brown.
“It is probably accepted that the vision for Morpeth is that it has to grow, but it has to grow in a sympathetic way to the heritage and environment of the town. It is an historic market town and the need to keep its character is the overwhelming consensus.
“One of the key themes of the groups is what makes Morpeth Morpeth, what do we want to keep about it and what do we want to throw away. There seems to be nothing we want to throw away at the moment.”
Topic groups are due to report back their conclusions in June, before consultation on issues and options begins in September. The referendum is expected in about 18 months’ time, but the steering group is keen to get a draft plan drawn up quickly.
Mr Brown said: “We need to get a draft plan as soon as possible because even if it has not been adopted it can still be a consideration for any future planning applications.
“The town council has already objected to a few proposals on the basis of prematurity because we are developing a Neighbourhood Plan and the strength of the plan will increase the further on we are with it.
“A draft plan will be quite a strong argument to prevent inappropriate development. It would put Morpeth in quite a strong position.”
Mr Trotter said: “Let’s develop our own plan, not leave it to the developers.
“Some people have said they don’t want any development, but there will be development – we have to be realistic about that. This plan gives us the opportunity to have more control over it.”
For more information about the process, or to find out how to get involved, visit www.themorpethneighbourhoodplan.org.uk
Alternatively, call Morpeth Town Council on 01670 514314, or drop into a working group session at Morpeth Town Hall. For meeting dates and times see the website or contact the council. No planning experience is necessary.