We need to embrace to potential of neighbourhood planning

Proper neighbourhood planning can bring communities together and inspire exciting regeneration projects, writes Tony Burton, convenor of Neighbourhood Planners.London.

It’s been eight years since the first pioneering communities exercised their rights to produce neighbourhood plans. More than half of local authorities have a completed plan and on average nine out of ten voters are saying ‘yes’ when a plan is put to referendum.

This strong take-up is testimony to the energy and commitment of local volunteers.

Neighbourhood plans are influencing the location and design of new housing, protecting green space and heritage, revitalising high streets and bringing people together to shape the future of their area. They have been tested on appeal and in the Courts and their influence is spreading.

London is playing an important role in the growth of the neighbourhood planning movement. It is showing how communities can grapple with the complexity of development in both the West End and the suburbs.

Neighbourhood plans are being prepared by less well-advantaged areas, as well as the likes of Mayfair and Knightsbridge. They are also pioneering new planning policies on issues as salient as air pollution, overheating and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

These achievements are despite the added challenge of one of the most complex real estate markets in the world and the inherent diversity and richness of London’s local communities.

The absence of town or parish councils – who prepare neighbourhood plans where they exist – means London’s neighbourhoods face a further barrier to entry as they need to set up a new community organisation, known as a neighbourhood forum, to prepare the plan.

State of neighbourhood planning in London

London is where the country’s strongest neighbourhood planning network has developed, with the establishment of volunteer-led Neighbourhood Planners.London in 2016. Its 2019 State of Neighbourhood Planning in London report found that over 120 communities have explored neighbourhood planning and 79 neighbourhood forums have been designated.

Now 13 forums have completed plans – and the number of completed plans is accelerating. The success of plans at referendum is clear cut. Camden tops the Borough league table with four completed plans.

It is, however, taking a challenging 49 months on average for forums to take a plan from designation to referendum. London is facing a growing number of forums becoming stuck after designation and the number of new forums coming on stream has declined from a peak of 18 to two per year.

And, despite successes elsewhere in the city, nine boroughs are neighbourhood planning ‘deserts’ with no designated neighbourhood forums – Harrow, Redbridge, Newham, City of London, Merton, Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Bromley and Croydon.

Neighbourhood planning challenges

The geography of neighbourhood planning in the capital presents a complex picture.

There is no clear correlation with levels of deprivation, homeownership or Borough politics. Civic-minded volunteers are using neighbourhood planning to make a real difference but too often they face unnecessary obstacles and a lack of support from established institutions.

There are lessons for the Mayor, London Councils, Central Government and the councillors and officers in London’s boroughs.

Some of the research evidence is damning. Mayor Khan’s London Plan started life believing a ‘two-tier’ planning system operated in the capital, apparently oblivious to the growth of neighbourhood plans.

A survey of Borough Local Plans in 2017 by Neighbourhood Planners.London showed only five gave serious attention to neighbourhood planning.

A 2016 report showed virtually no Boroughs address the additional Community Infrastructure Levy available to areas with a neighbourhood plan.  A 2018 report concluded only one Borough (Lambeth) was meeting legal requirements to set out in its Statement of Community Involvement how neighbourhood planning would be supported.

The anecdotal evidence is equally worrying. In 2018, the Commission on the Future of Localism chaired by former Head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake, identified in some depth what the public sees as ‘the blockages and frustrations for the expression of community power’, including ‘top down decision making’ and ‘lack of trust and risk aversion’. Neighbourhood planning is too often a case in point.

With some exceptions, neighbourhood planning volunteers report reluctance at best among both planning professionals and local councillors to engage with neighbourhood planning.

In many areas there is clear evidence of minimal or misinformation being put out and in a large minority there is active hostility.

Planning professionals can appear threatened by lay community planners and many councillors appear challenged by the growth of participatory alongside representative democracy.

This is creating strong headwinds and the very idea of community-led planning is being snuffed out before it gets a chance in many neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhood forums have been prevented from operating in key locations such as Elephant and Castle and Old Oak and Park Royal by Boroughs amending the boundary of neighbourhood areas put forward by local communities.

In other locations they have spent huge sums on developing alternative approaches which they control such as Area Action Plans or consultant-led evidence for place policies in Local Plans.

Some authorities are pushing the limits of the legal timescales within which they must make decisions on key stages of the neighbourhood planning process. Others question the representativeness of neighbourhood forums or the legitimacy of their community engagement seemingly oblivious to the weaknesses in their own arrangements.

‘But above all, volunteer neighbourhood planners observe a ‘conspiracy of silence’ where politicians and policymakers place ever greater emphasis on the importance of community engagement without ever connecting this enthusiasm to the potential of neighbourhood planning as a ready-made means to bring it to life.

Policy crunch – ten benefits of neighbourhood planning

Despite these headwinds neighbourhood planners are demonstrating their value to some of the most important planning issues of our time:

  1. Community consent

For London to accommodate eye-watering levels of housing development without spreading outwards is going to require the controversial transformation of many existing residential areas. Neighbourhood planning provides a means to secure this intensification with community consent.

  1. Small sites

National planning policy now puts great weight on the importance of small sites for housing land supply.  Neighbourhood plans such as those for Highgate and St Quintin and Woodlands are demonstrating how they can identify small sites missed by Boroughs and bring them forward more quickly.

  1. Protecting what’s special

In the balance between accommodating development and respecting quality of life, neighbourhood plans can lead the way in protecting what matters most to local people, including local green spaces, community assets, heritage character and key views.

  1. Changing work patterns

As the demand for new and flexible working practices (such as live-work accommodation) grows so neighbourhood planning is well positioned as a way to provide flexibility at the very local level of the individual street or small employment area and to respond swiftly to changing working patterns such as home working and co-working.

  1. Quality design

In responding to the growing focus on quality design and architecture it is neighbourhood planning that can often best reflect community views and swiftly introduce design codes and policies that can create places to be proud of.

  1. Estate redevelopment

With growing disquiet over plans for “estate regeneration” and expectations of residents’ ballots, neighbourhood plans can provide a way of achieving planned change with community consent.

  1. Added resources

With London Boroughs saying they lack the resources to undertake the additional workloads envisaged in the London Plan such as detailed area plans, Supplementary Planning Documents, design review, and preparation of design codes, so neighbourhood forums can bring additional planning resources at low cost through the contribution of volunteers with relevant backgrounds and expertise who contribute because they care deeply about their local neighbourhood and its future.

  1. Early involvement

With declining levels of community trust in local planning authorities and developers, neighbourhood planning can make a reality of public involvement, at the earliest stages of new
developments, and bring principles of community engagement, collaboration and co-design to life.

  1. Delivering early innovation

The flexibility and responsiveness of neighbourhood planning can support new and emergent planning policy on issues as divergent as air pollution, local homes, overheating and the Sustainable Development Goals.

  1. Addressing uncertainty

In an increasingly uncertain world, there is scope to exploit the speed and responsiveness that the neighbourhood planning framework allows (when not obstructed). A major infrastructure project may stall or not attract government funding. Landowner decisions may change.

Brexit and a commercial and housing market currently on the turn in London, are creating huge uncertainties. The new London Plan is a 400 page ‘Plan A’ premised on optimistic assumptions.

As well as helping to deliver this neighbourhood plans can help to provide a bespoke ‘Plan B’ for those parts of London where events do not proceed as hoped.

Neighbourhood planning is also beginning to raise questions about the lack of neighbourhood level governance in London. As Boroughs increasingly share services and merge functions so the clamour for a more local voice is growing.

Following the successful establishment of Queens Park Community Council in 2012 other communities are looking at the potential of this new form of local democracy. The process for establishing a town/parish council is made easier where a neighbourhood plan has been prepared and so it is no surprise that some of the early interest coincides with the area of neighbourhood forums in Spitalfields and Central Ealing.

Funding and support

Neighbourhood Planners.London’s research shows that central government’s support programme needs to adapt to make sure the funds and support it provides are adequate, effectively used and reaching all neighbourhoods.

The ability for all neighbourhood forums to access additional funds and support should be restored. Mayoral funds, including from the process of development, should be available along with more peer to peer support.

Neighbourhood planning needs to be championed by the Mayor not least for how it helps deliver good growth and community engagement.

It also needs to be valued as much for how it brings communities together and inspires projects and initiatives to improve the local quality of life as for the planning policies a neighbourhood plan contains.

Local communities need more incentives to support them at different stages on the often long road to producing a neighbourhood plan. They also need greater influence over spending some of the funds generated by the community infrastructure levy on the development that follows.

Neighbourhood planning is now part of the mainstream. The time has come for planning professionals and local politicians in London as elsewhere to embrace its potential to improve planning for the future.

Thomas Barrett

Journalist - follow him on Twitter

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