The Atmos Project – bringing a derelict site into community ownership

A Community Right to Build Order process 2014 – 2016

In November 2016, a referendum in Totnes recorded an 86% ‘Yes’ vote for the use of a Community Right to Build Order on a derelict eight-acre brownfield site, marking the end of an intensive two-year period of work on the project known as Atmos Totnes.

Recognising their success and their ability to turn dreams into reality, this was a key moment for all those involved in the project – which was by then nine years old. Ambitious, extensive and always inspiring, Atmos Totnes began in the midst of local job losses and confusion about the future, yet was able to move forward through the strength of local support and the opportunities opened up by the advent of Localism.

The period pre-localism

In June 2007, Dairy Crest Group Plc. closed the Totnes Creameries site with the loss of over 160 jobs. For many generations, the eight acre site located next to the mainline railway station in Totnes, South Devon, had been the place where many local people had found employment. Alongside jobs, it also played a key role in the social health and well-being of Totnes; many people fell in love and found partners through working at the factory, which was at one time also the home to fifteen skittles teams. With the closure of the site in 2007 it was clear that the town lost more than simply jobs.

Following the closure of the Dairy Crest site in 2007 a number of people came together. The organisation that formed later to take the work forward was Totnes Community Development Society established in 2012.

Following the closure of the site, a group of local people came together to ask the question ‘what happens to it now?’ What was very clear was that there was a great deal of concern that it would become yet another ‘for sale’ housing estate with the loss of space for employment and nothing that would really provide housing for those people who were struggling to afford to live in Totnes.

In September 2007, Totnes Town Council, interested in the heritage of Totnes, undertook a successful six month campaign to get a building on the site listed – a building that may otherwise have been demolished.  This was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Atmospheric Pumping Station and Engine House, known locally as the Brunel Building.

By March 2008 Atmos Totnes had come into existence. Named because of the connection with Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway and in recognition of the need to mitigate against climate change, Atmos Totnes was presented as ‘a chance to conceive an ambitious and prestigious development for the area, a well-designed, carbon neutral, iconic, mixed-use scheme positioned next to a highly visible, central, major transport hub and the Dart River’.

Although it was originally assumed that Dairy Crest would sell the site on the open market, the persistence of the group that was to become Totnes Community Development Society, in continuing to seek to meet and talk to Dairy Crest about their ideas and how they might take them forward, ultimately led to the Society having a legal interest in the site.

The journey between June 2007 when the site closed and August 2014 when legal agreements were finally signed, involved building the relationship with Dairy Crest and gathering information about the site. During this period the first funds for the project were raised in the form of £500 from the Mitchel Trust. This sum made it was possible to leverage further funds from Adventure Capital Fund, Social Investment Business, and the Homes and Communities Agency.

This funding was used to commission technical feasibility work that gathered information about the site and started to reveal the viability of a community led development. Alongside this initial work, lobbying the local authority and national agencies including the Development Trusts Association (now Locality) and support from organisations like Coin Street Community Builders, helped to develop credibility and trust with Dairy Crest.

Dialogue between Totnes Community Development Society and Landowners Dairy Crest, which led to Heads of Terms, was aided by increasing knowledge about the site facilitated by well-matched pieces of funding over time.

Localism helps shift the dialogue

With the advent of Localism in 2011, and the subsequent opportunity to use a Community Right to Build Order, the discussions with Dairy Crest were given a new impetus and a means by which Totnes Community Development Society could formally undertake the masterplanning for the site and move towards planning consent.

By May 2013, Heads of Terms had been agreed with Dairy Crest, providing an opportunity for Totnes Community Development Society to undertake masterplanning, acquire the site and move forward to develop it. Converting the Heads of Terms into final legal agreements took longer than anticipated, partly because Dairy Crest introduced a developer with whom they wanted Totnes Community Development Society to work, (McCarthy and Stone), but mainly because it was complex work involving three sets of lawyers.

Legal agreements signed by Totnes Community Development Society, McCarthy and Stone and Dairy Crest were for the sale of the site. They included a co-operation agreement between the lead developer, Totnes Community Development Society, and McCarthy and Stone as project partner,  which set the framework for ongoing collaboration.

By August 2014 the legal agreements were in place, giving all parties the comfort they needed to move the project forward. The project to establish the Community Right to Build Order (CRtBO) was formally launched on 25 September 2014.

Welcome to the party

The launch involved letting local people know that Totnes Community Development Society was going to make an announcement at the gate of the site at 1pm on Thursday 25th September 2014. 250 people turned up to hear the announcement:  if a Community Right to Build Order process was followed and if an Order was made, it would result in Dairy Crest selling the site to Totnes Community Development Society.

The announcement at the site
The announcement at the site

Once the Community Right to Build Order process had been defined as the route to planning, it enabled the process to be governed through the principles of participation. In this way, the CRtBO process was utilised to make progress through planning, define the development itself and also to mobilise the community from day one of the design period.

Laughing, crying, remembering, reminding

Consultation for masterplanning work began in the autumn of 2014. This first stage of consultation was designed to engage and lead to a development brief. The Atmos Totnes Hub was the focal point for this engagement and over a six-week period in October to December 2014, over 1,250 people came to give their views and ideas.

Start here flyer
Start here flyer

1,250 people contributed to the initial brief provided to the design team. They did this during the autumn of 2014 through memories, ideas and visions for the Atmos Totnes site.

The initial consultation in autumn 2014 was designed by a local creative business who joined the early project team with the Project Manager, others from Totnes Community Development Society and the project architect.  This creative engagement focused on capturing the histories of local people about the land and surroundings, and was supported by a small Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

What was clear from this early community engagement was that the history of the site was bound-up with people’s expectations for the land. When a significant employer is lost, the reaction is to want answers about where people will work. The physical relationship of the site to the town and the river was also important to people’s personal histories.

Looking back also enabled conversations about the future to flow and follow. As 2014 turned to 2015 the community had laughed, cried, remembered and reminded. It had also recognised the opportunity to proceed as a community that had been opened up by the recently signed legal agreements. Within this they had also begun to think about what the land could do and how it could again meet local need. This resulted in hundreds of visioning documents which formed the raw material for the brief.

The 1,250 people who participated in the initial period of consultation provided the foundations for the brief, which the community design team rationalised working with members of the design team. Because any idea was welcome, people drew or wrote information, opinion and poetry. Some came with collage, others with scale drawings. Some came to tell stories and some came back to the offices where they had been paid their redundancy and in so doing, started a process of healing.

The Atmos Totnes site office was essential to providing people with a home for this process on the site itself. The facilitators of the sessions were guardians of the process – welcoming, explaining, asking, and listening. Aside from the creative facilitators and architects, these were all volunteers, and were also either Directors of Totnes Community Development Society, or Atmos Ambassadors, a group of residents and business people formed to support outreach and engagement across the community.

Brainstorming sessions
Brainstorming sessions

Reveal the constraints – don’t design a scheme

Alongside this first engagement process, a design team was commissioned to start work on fully understanding the constraints to the site, starting with a full review of the information gathered over the previous seven years.  A grant of £40,000 from Community Buildings Project Support Grant was critical in enabling the dialogue with other funders.

About the site:

  • Eight acres

  • One listed building

  • On a functional floodplain

  • Next to the main line railway

  • Nine species of bats

  • Close to one of busiest road junctions in Devon.

Together with grants from the Architectural Heritage Fund to support specific work on the Brunel building, these funds provided the focus to raise over £450,000 in total to pay for the technical pre-development work required to fully understand the constraints on the site and to work with the community to establish the Community Right to Build Order. The design team commissioned to work on the project collaborated in a way that was clearly unfamiliar: They were given a brief consisting of the initial known constraints, investigations and community consultation and asked to work together to present the best solutions to meet the community need. This allowed the various disciplines (ecology, engineering, traffic and transport, design, demolition, cost, and construction management) to have access to the broader priorities in a different way. They didn’t need to compete, but rather they needed to work together considering the whole site and whole community.

The design team of engineers, ecologists, demolition specialists, cost consultants, and architects were assembled to work collaboratively to review and expand on the technical knowledge about the Atmos Totnes site. They were asked to detail constraints on the site before any design work was to commence.

Developing the Masterplan brief

The common themes emerging from the first six weeks of consultation were that the community had aspirations and wanted to see jobs and housing coming through as quickly as possible. In some cases, there were groups of people seeking to see their own interests realised on the site, and keen to see the ‘right people’ involved. Their impatience and desire to push their agenda was something of a constraint all the way through this period.

However these issues were balanced out over time with a wider understanding of the needs of Totnes. To have only listened to those with relative privilege and with more time to invest in the scheme, would not have allowed an understanding of the true need in the community. Something broader was needed. This would take time but the outcome would be the result of a true process.

On site
On site

A Community Design Team of twenty local residents was assembled to review all the initial consultation material gathered. They were asked to leave any personal or professional interest in the site behind and work for the community across two weekends to distil the brief from the hundreds of memories and ideas collected.

Of course, there were some people who didn’t think it was possible for a community to gain planning permission for the site and some of these people were very vocal.  A community led process that genuinely allowed people to think through the issues themselves was going to be the only way to bring people forward, and for the proposed development to genuinely meet need. What also came in to very clear focus was that the Community Right to Build Order process is an objective and inclusive process with no one person having any more influence than another.

A good year

During a year of design to the Regulation 14 Consultation in November 2015, Totnes Community Development Society and the design team facilitated over 20 consultation sessions. Some of these were general and some were focused on different interests in the community, with a number being several weeks long. However, the regularity of sessions and the incremental steps taken as a result, allowed people to move in and out of the process as their busy lives allowed.

Each time people came to a session, they were given information about design and process. They were also asked to consider their own perspective and to provide their opinion on a broader basis. This approach became critical to narrowing the design options as the  constraints were resolved. In many ways, the process towards Regulation 14 was about building something that was visible; an Order, a design. However, it was also about building something invisible; the capacity to understand the Order sufficiently to make comment to improve it, until it was finally ready for submission.

Consultation sessions
Consultation sessions

Over 20 consultation sessions during the year provided an iterative framework for the review of the design. Workshops on specific topics provided detail that crossed design themes around job provision and housing to meet need.

Project planning controlled the structure and momentum of the work, reduced constraints, progressed the design step by step, and enabled people to contribute at the right time. Within the project management structure the design team worked in tandem with the community engagement plan. Putting the design team in the room with the community   accelerated the process, helped build capacity and reduced the risk for funders, investors, and Totnes Community Development Society.

Pre-application advice was sought from all the agencies (South Hams District Council, Natural England, the Environment Agency, Devon County Council and Network Rail), as part of the consultation. This enabled them to legitimately commit to the project and provide critical expertise when needed.

The value of an unconditional space

The unconditional space for the community engagement which ran from September 2014 to October 2015 was vital in ensuring people recognised that an honest dialogue was underway. The process allowed an ongoing, objective review which led to moving the design on, or accepting that the design in hand was the one that actually met needs. Whilst not all comments resulted in a change, all were considered.

What is clear is that the final design would certainly not have evolved without this honest dialogue or the drive to set-up a process of engagement that would maximise the opportunities of Regulation 14, 16 and the referendum, within the Community Right to Build Order process.

There were over 4,500 meaningful contributions to the design of Atmos Totnes by the local community. Three strands of expertise were working hand-in-hand: the professional design team, statutory agencies and the local community.

Community engagement
Community engagement

The Project Manager, Totnes Community Development Society, the Project Team, design team and the community, were all committed to an objective process; their professional oversight and specialism was vital to progressing the design based on consultation.

How the funnel narrows

As the design became both clearer and more complex, the Community Right to Build Order process moved more sharply into focus. The design team had a workable design that was consistently meeting the original brief. The community were responding well. The decision was taken to undertake a final consultation session before Regulation 14.

With so many detailed sessions this was also a psychological preparation for the community. In the past, the consultation sessions had been around key questions on the design and responses had been provided in a range of ways. During September 2015, final aspects were checked, but critically, members of the community were also asked if they would vote for the scheme positively at this point. 98% said they would. The community were ready for a step into formal consultation, and the planning process.

Totnes brainstorm
Totnes brainstorm

Knowing when to move the process to the next step critical throughout. The point at which the designs and the community were ready to enter a new phase of consultation was significant – a gear change in consultation terms for the design team, community and statutory agencies.

Into Regulation 14 consultation

Logistically a planning submission is a significant piece of work for any development project. Preparing for a formal consultation on a complex development scheme with multiple constraints, design aspects and buildings was a project in itself.  An earlier set of headings had been tested during the September consultation to help people navigate around the various reporting areas that would be present in the planning documentation – the Community Right to Build Order and the 2015 appendices.

Totnes meeting room
Totnes meeting room

In November 2015, technical reports and a full draft of the Order were prepared for the Regulation 14 consultation. The design team was asked to include a lay-person’s introduction to each of their technical reports to help the community access the information.

The physical consultation space was then stripped down to the key diagrams extracted from the reports to enable people to access the information in visual or written format. Each technical report was made available alongside these. The Project Manager had set the project timescales and priorities throughout and this important milestone was no different. However, additionally this needed a project set-up that fixed formal notification with the community and agencies. Mailings with Royal Mail were booked, advertising was put in place and other publicity committed several weeks in advance to meet the requirements of the regulations. Regulation 14 commenced on 2 November 2015.

The Directors of the Qualifying Body (Totnes Community Development Society), scheduled staff in attendance at the site office hub each and every day for almost seven weeks. All volunteers needed briefings to enable them to answer questions about the design, to facilitate those visiting to have their say and to submit a comment or objection to the process.

At every part of the process the community wanted to understand how this new route to planning worked and the opportunities open for more consultation as a result of the Community Right to Build Order process. The community was developing a capacity to understand and respond to planning in a constructive way as well as specifically to the plans for Atmos Totnes.

Each person coming into the Regulation 14 consultation space was provided with an explanation of the process, including what the designs showed and in which rooms they could be found. Hundreds of people also looked at the consultation material online. The aim was to lay the information out and help people to understand the process in which they were participating.

The systems for capturing the feedback were diligent with materials being collected via email, post or at the hub. They were numbered immediately and then processed. Each document went through several checks as it came in to ensure information was captured accurately despite the varied styles, subjects and details offered.  Every comment and objection was typed up.

The value of the Health Check

The agencies were e-mailing and writing their official response to the request as Regulation 14 opened.  By  the  time  Regulation  14  closed, 192  comments  had  been  made  by  the community and agencies and an independent examiner had been commissioned to undertake a Health Check on the Order.

Overall there were 1,179 views of Regulation 14 information. There were 443 visits to the Hub to view the draft Order and 736 people looked at the draft Order on the Regulation 14 pages of the project website. There were 192 representations made on the draft Order from local groups, local businesses, residents and statutory agencies.

What was clear was that there was a common response to the design on the south of the site by some agencies and the community. The massing of buildings on the south side of the site were too high, particularly in relation to the listed building on the site, and pointed at a need for a review if the basic conditions were to be met. The Health Check reinforced this and a design review enabled a logical switch of buildings and a swift revision of infrastructure.

During this period, some in the community would probably have said that contention was evident. The consistency of the six-week period of consultation allowed facilitators, Atmos Ambassadors and Directors of Totnes Community Development Society, to reiterate that this was an opportunity to hear feedback, and where appropriate make changes – a positive opportunity therefore. Objective facilitation in Regulation 14 was critical. Being open every day of the week, with multiple ways to input meant that there was ample opportunity for views to be formally submitted.

Submission to the LPA: How to spend Christmas

Further feedback from the Health Check had indicated how the Community Right to Build Order could be expanded to better show its conformity. What had been a single document with several appendices became three documents: The Order, the Basic Conditions and the Consultation Statement. It is worth stressing here that it is the responsibility of the qualifying body to make the changes to the Order. In this case, it meant spending the Christmas holidays revising and reviewing the documents. The Project Manager took the decision to include all comments and responses – not just objections – to the 192 comments collected during Regulation 14 alongside adding information about planning policies.

Many of the comments did not result in a change to the plan. A development may never meet everyone’s ideal but it should consider the needs of the whole. In this case the statistics of a community-led democratic and transparent process were showing. All comments, objections and responses were included in the Regulation 15 submission of the Community Right to Build Order.

To show the community the outcome of the Regulation 14 consultation and the revisions to the Order, an information session was held in January 2016, a few days before submission of the Order to South Hams District Council. No consultation took place as that was about to become the role of the local authority. However, this was an important opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the Community Right to Build Order with all comments ready to read, responses in narrative and design form, and Directors of Totnes Community Development Society there to explain the process to date and the next step to be taken: submission.

Regulation 16 goes live

Submission was a critical moment for the project. Since September 2015 the qualifying body had been steering all community engagement and the whole process of the project. At this point the project moved to the local authority to consult further. The planning officer in charge of the case had been involved through the pre-application and had coordinated a response within Regulation 14 from the local authority, having been assigned some months earlier. He now received the Order – something that happens every day of the week in relation to thousands of planning applications across the country. However, the path in this case involved a different legal process, so another member of the local authority, the solicitor, joined the team at this point.

There were 42 responses to Regulation 16 consultation (in comparison to 117 objections during Regulation 14 – highlighting the value of the Community Right to Build Order in delivering consensus around what a community needs.

In many ways, the Regulation 16 consultation was much more familiar to those who normally engage with planning. However, there were far fewer comments and objections than at Regulation 14, reflecting the value of an iterative design enabled by the Community Right to Build Order process.

No changes were required as a response to Regulation 16 consultation by the local authority, who declared in June 2016 that the Order met the Basic Conditions and should therefore progress to Independent Examination.

Examination: The NPIERS way

The role of the Independent Examiner in the Community Right to Build Order process had been of interest to the community throughout the preparation of the Order. For many it seemed an objective ‘outside’ and qualified opinion was required to help them understand if what they were looking at was bona fide.

It is worth reiterating that Atmos Totnes was one of the first Community Right to Build Orders in the UK. Arguably it is also one of the most complex to date. By the time the Order was submitted to the local authority it included more than 50 documents. Therefore, the community had the triple challenge of understanding the Order, the detail behind the Order (the rationale for each element, including engineering, ecology and design), and the planning process.

South Hams District Council applied for an Independent Examiner for Atmos Totnes in consultation with the Qualifying Body, Totnes Community Development Society. NPIERS provided a recognisable and respected source for this important independent oversight, a vital part of the Community Right to Build Order process and important to agencies and the community alike prior to moving to referendum.

Regulation 14 consultation had added a layer of consultation for the community and agencies on top of traditional planning. Many people were unaware of how traditional planning worked and therefore it took people varying amounts of time to see the benefits of both Regulation 14 consultation and the Independent Examiner. Once the two periods of formal consultation had been completed, with agencies involved throughout, a single highly qualified person commented on both the process and the Basic Conditions within the Order itself. This put a full-stop on the discursive part of the process.

Waiting for the Examiner’s report

Waiting for the Independent Examiner’s report to be published, after so much activity for nearly two years of the project, was a challenge to manage. It was during this period that as the Qualifying Body, Totnes Community Development Society instigated a formally quiet period in the process. The Independent Examiner’s report, binding on the local authority and Qualifying Body, is written in an explanatory form so when it was released, people had an opportunity to read the response and the rationale. The Community Right to Build Order had met the Basic Conditions and would proceed to referendum.

Totnes Community Development Society had written several conditions into the Order, including processes that were needed before the development could take place. These were included in consultation with the agencies. The Independent Examiner had minor modifications to make to the conditions within the Order, leading to a further tightening of these aspects.

The Independent Examiners report provided a rationale on why the Community Right to Build Order met Basic Conditions. A binding document, the Order was now committed to a referendum.

To vote or not to vote: the date is set

Having passed independent examination, the local authority issued the revised Order. By this point the conversations with the local authority were taking place through the Solicitor and Development Control. Organising the referendum involved Electoral Services, who understood how the process did and didn’t differ from any other referendum.

The boundary had been confirmed as the designated area for the Neighbourhood Plan within the Independent Examiner’s report. This had caused some concern in the town, with people living close to the site and within the wider town border not being included. The Independent Examiner’s rationale was clear, and is binding on the local authority and the Qualifying Body. Therefore whether the boundary was right or wrong, the momentum to move on was in place. The community needed to be invited to join in again, and support neighbours with the right to vote to step forward and reacquaint themselves with the Order prior to the referendum.

Choosing not to campaign

During the summer of 2016 prior to the Atmos Totnes referendum, UK voted for Brexit. Confidence in referendums as an effective process on both sides of the debate, appeared to be low. The response to this was to reinforce the continued role of the Qualifying Body and the Atmos Totnes team as facilitators rather than owners of the Order process.

Therefore, Totnes Community Development Society did not register as a campaigning organisation, and would not be campaigning for or against the Order at referendum. The commitment was made  to  running an engagement plan in the four weeks running up to  the  referendum that continued to make information as accessible as possible, with opportunities for people to ask questions about the process, the designs and the Order so that they could make an informed vote at the ballot box.

Totnes Register Review Vote
Totnes Register Review Vote

Helping people step forward

Like Regulation 14 consultation, facilitated spaces, where people could come forward and ask questions were held during the period prior to the referendum. Again, this was about objectivity and the need for a space to understand.

The results of the referendum are obviously anonymous. But the hope is that most votes were based on an informed opinion, having understood the plans.

Totnes Community Development Society did not campaign for or against Atmos Totnes in the run up to the referendum. The Directors and Atmos Ambassadors worked long hours in person and online to answer questions about the scheme so that each member of the community had the detail they needed to make an informed vote at the ballot box.

People ‘popped in’ to engagement sessions with the intention of staying five minutes to check the scheme was ‘all ok’. Many ended up spending an hour or more, asking questions and listening to the responses to other people’s questions. Many looked again at the information online and emailed, called or posted questions on social media. It was clear that people were increasing their understanding of Atmos Totnes, development processes and planning at the same time. The capacity of the community to make informed contributions to broader development narratives, had developed over the period the Order was prepared.

Some people in the community came forward during the run up to the referendum and asked for changes to be made to the plans, so that they could feel able to vote in favour. So the process of the Community Right to Build Order, with its multiple and structured consultation periods was explained again. The chance for revision and input had gone. The funnel of input was now down to a choice. One Order, one vote, one choice.

During the referendum information sessions held across the town, facilitators estimated that around 25% people attending were new to consultation and were coming with the triple desire to understand the design, planning and decide their own vote.

Those leading the engagement process estimate that between 25 – 35% of people were new to face-to-face engagement within the Atmos Totnes process in the period prior to the referendum.

Working through the confusion

The stamina of the volunteers involved in delivering leaflets and answering questions, often late into the evening, was commendable. However, away from the activities of the Atmos Totnes team, the Local Plan opened for consultation earlier in the summer. Many of the words associated with the documents issued around the Local Plan were unfortunately – if unavoidably, similar to those carried on polling cards for Atmos Totnes. A consequence of this was that people voting by post in the Atmos Totnes referendum, did so assuming that they were voting ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Local Plan. This was a critical moment where a misunderstanding could have derailed the principles of open engagement as well as the project itself.

Formal wording had been included in circulars about the project since the beginning of the design process to ensure people were familiar with the legal and planning language that was going to dominate during the formal Community Right to Build Order process. However, this meant people needed to engage, read and understand these documents, and as not everyone was able or inclined to engage fully in the process or remember all details, there was a real risk of confusion.

A local campaign – completely separate from Atmos Totnes, had been started against aspects of the Local Plan. This campaign was based on opinion rather than encouraging people to engage in the consultation process led by the local authority, and it led to people signing petitions to say that development was ‘bad’ in Totnes or that the local authority was to be mistrusted. This approach was completely counter to that taken by Atmos Totnes.

Realising this was happening, the project manager and communications lead increased efforts to ensure people understood what the polling cards were for, including using some of the project’s limited finances to advertise and re-leaflet as a way of countering the misinformation that was circulating. However, the clock was ticking. Postal votes had been cast and the hope was that enough people were looking beyond the polling card and seeking clarity on the detail of the vote, to ensure the final decision would reflect the true will of the local population.

Totnes polling card
Totnes polling card

And the result is…

The referendum for Atmos Totnes took place on the 23 November 2016. The project team did not work on engagement that day and did not ‘mobilise’ the vote. The team had spent four weeks out in the community helping people get the information they needed to vote. The decision was now up to the voters.

On Wednesday 23rd November, 2016, the referendum recorded an 86% Yes vote for the use of a Community Right to Build Order for Atmos Totnes. In usual elections campaign groups or electoral parties provide a mix of observers to ensure that the count is undertaken correctly and effectively. There were no campaigns running in relation to the Order for Atmos Totnes, therefore two members of Totnes Community Development Society were at the count with two local councillors to provide the necessary oversight.

What next

The relationship with the local authority, responsible for discharging the conditions in the Order, is now legal and planning-based but is being managed by Development Control in the main.

Atmos Totnes Community Right to Build Order sets out plans for:

  • 62 affordable houses (held affordable in perpetuity)

  • 37 houses for those aged over 55

  • 7,051 square metres of workspace

  • A 58-bed hotel

  • An energy centre

  • A community venue

  • Youth provision

  • Health facilities

  • Integrated sustainable transport plan.

The Community Right to Build Order as a process has many features that are positive in enabling a community to input and review. Seen early enough in the viability and feasibility process it can provide some of the process blueprint to get the plans to Regulation 14 Consultation with a community in the driving seat AND with the habits and tools to take the process forward.

The Order is also useful in that enables the community to include conditions that it expects to be met before construction starts. In a complex scheme like Atmos Totnes this is significant and important. It enables the process to continue in the community, with oversite from the local authority. This helps the community to see the next steps at the point of voting and ensures that momentum doesn’t stop at the ballot box.

Construction and management

The capacity to understand, engage and participate in development continues as a community. The Community Right to Build Order has not just been about planning. It has been about establishing a community-led process.

Alongside design and planning, the project team has prepared a phased build programme to commence in late 2017. This starts with remediation and enabling works to bring the site to a number of serviced plots. These plots will be developed out over a five year period.

As part of the community, young people and students have already been involved in pre-development work. This engagement will develop into a full training and capacity building programme for the community including the provision of formal apprenticeships and certification. This will form a Labour Initiative at scale, rooted in the community with the potential to support other developments, both commercial and community-led, into the future.

Alongside the preparation for construction, people within the town will continue another facilitated process – developing the systems for management of the completed site. These are skills and experiences that Totnes needs as a whole, as service provision and assets are increasingly managed from within the community.

A final word about courage

Stepping in to any unknown takes courage. In the case of Atmos Totnes, both Dairy Crest and McCarthy and Stone have shown great courage. They have both been active partners in a project led by the community for the community; this is not their normal journey. However, the outcome to date of this journey is that all partners have gained from it.  A planning consent is in place for derelict brownfield site with – several significant constraints – which is supported by the community and which has been achieved less with confrontation and contention, than with comment. Landowner, developer, statutory partners and community have all worked together through the facilitation by a community following a collaborative process.  This is the process of Community Right to Build.

About The Community Right to Build

The Community Right to Build came into force on 6th April 2012 and forms part of the Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations contained within the Localism Act 2011.

In essence the Community Right to Build requires the formal process of consultation, submission and examination. The stages include:

  • Regulation 14 Pre Submission (6 weeks)
  • Submission of the Order to the LPA
  • LPA 6 week Regulation 16 consultation
  • Examination
  • Referendum
  • Making the Order
  • Regulation 14 Pre Submission (6 weeks): this is the formal 6 week consultation by the organisation submitting the order. The requirement includes the following: publicise the plan in a manner which brings it to the attention of people who live, work or run businesses in the neighbourhood area. This should include details of the proposed Order, details of where and when it may be viewed, details on how to make comments on the plan and the date by which comments must be received (at least six weeks from the date on which it is first publicised).
  • consult statutory consultation bodies whose interests may be affected by the plan. The local council should be able to advise on this, but it includes the county council (if applicable), the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage.
  • send a copy of the proposed order to the local authority.

Six week Regulation 16 consultation

Following any amendments resulting from the pre-submission consultation stage, the proposed Order is submitted to the local planning authority.

What needs to be submitted:

Site Location plan and other Plans: these need to be in sufficient detail to allow the independent examiner and the local community to fully understand the proposal being considered/voted on. Ideally they should include plan views, elevations, sections, perspective views and illustrations and if possible show the development in relation to the surrounding context. The intention is to aid visualisation and help those members of the community that struggle with reading plans and therefore reduce the scope for misinterpretation.

Design and access statement: outlining the design principles and concepts that have been applied to the proposed development and how issues relating to access to the development have been dealt with.

Relevant supporting documentation (technical reports etc.):

  • Clarification over land ownership
  • a consultation statement (see later section)
  • a statement on how the plan fulfils the basic conditions and other legal requirements

On receiving the submitted Order proposal and supporting documents, the local authority is responsible for checking that the submitted Order has followed the proper legal process, such as the neighbourhood area being designated and that the Order has met the legal requirements for consultation and publicity. The local authority is also responsible for publicising the proposed Order and arranging for the independent examination and referendum to take place, for example in appointing the independent examiner.


The local authority will appoint a person to carry out the independent examination of the Order who is known as the ‘independent examiner’. This appointment will be agreed with the organisation that submitted the Order to the local authority. They must appoint an appropriately qualified and experienced person. The local authority will send to the independent examiner the plan and supporting information and also a copy of any comments received during the consultation period following submission of the plan. The independent examiner will take these comments into account.


If the Order is found to be satisfactory, with modifications if necessary, then the local authority will arrange for the referendum to take place. This will be organised by the elections unit and 28 working days before the date of the referendum, the local authority is required to publish information about the Order. Then 25 working days before the date of the referendum, they are required to give notice that a referendum is taking place and the date of the poll.

The question that will be asked is as follows:

Do you want the development in the Community right to Build Order for [insert name of the neighbourhood area] to have planning permission?

People on the electoral register will be entitled to vote in the referendum. If more than 50% of those voting in the referendum vote ‘yes’, then the local planning authority will grant a planning permission.

Updated: Feb 2017

We visit the Atmos project in Totnes to look at how community-led housing can be designed by and for the community with benefits for everyone, including the local wildlife.