Neighbourhood planning can be a powerful tool to engage with and help communities to deliver growth, fostering relationships between local authorities and the citizens they serve, and even reinforcing policy decisions. But forums also risk being run by a narrow demographic, take up major resources for councils in ‘hand-holding’ and management, and could be marginalised by government reforms on design codes presented in the Planning White Paper.
Those were some of the key points to emerge from a Think Tank on the issue run by NLA last week and kicked off by Westminster’s City and Planning Policy team Leader, Kimberley West. West said that the authority had created key points of contact for forums but spread work across officers within the authority, making time to point people towards available guidance and an in-house guide, and making CIL money available. Forums being submitted at the same time can present challenges, however, over resources, and it can be ‘quite overwhelming’ for the forum producers themselves in the ‘huge undertaking’ it represents. ‘My key takeaway from my experience at Westminster is that early, continual consistent engagement with forms is the best way to forge a strong relationship and to have an effective influence over their emerging plans’.
Brian O’Donnell, Strategic Planning and Implementation Manager, LB Camden said the borough had an ‘engaged community’ with a big take-up in neighbourhood planning, mostly with non-built environment professionals. ‘But it is challenging and resource intensive and you’re very much responding in the forum’s timetable’. In Sweden, said Geoff Denton, Architect, Urban Designer and Partner, White Arkitekter, said that the planning authorities are ‘proactive’ and have resources, beginning development on a neighbourhood scale from a ‘vision basis’ to a dialogue with people. In the UK – the practice is working in Barking – they try to encourage both private and public clients to think at the neighbourhood level and ‘get underneath the skin of a place’. Planning in the UK, by contrast to Sweden, was ‘reactionary’.
Richard Crutchley, Associate, Tibbalds said he shared the conflict of views that are essentially scepticism over neighbourhood plans and the sense that they could be really worthwhile, especially in London, questioning the move to design coding and the skills required. On the whole, Crutchley said he had found it a productive experience and are a valuable tool where local people can influence policy. ‘It gives the community the opportunity to take the lead it gives him a greater understanding of their local issues, it can bring into sharper focus the issues that they want to tackle and focus on; it gives them a greater understanding of the planning process and how complicated it is and how complex it is’. It is also a real PR exercise for the planning profession and make communities more open to development in their areas. But there are often better ways to resolve local issues than embark on a neighbourhood plan, he added. ‘And I also worry sometimes how about how engaging with the broadest community neighbourhood plans are. Who's getting involved in neighbourhood plans? Is it a broad spectrum of the population or is it people who are perhaps retired, or better off or more articulate or from particular ethnic backgrounds? And how are they engaging with their community? What do they define as their community?’. Research is time-consuming, burdensome, and procedural, and places like London have complex electoral borders, compared to places like Salisbury where neighbourhood planning appears to work better, Crutchley added.
Katya Samokhvalova, Associate Planner, Nexus Planning agreed there were pluses and minuses. ‘Our experience has mostly been on the negative side’, she said, with volunteers being passionate at the beginning but with enthusiasm that dies down once they realise the extent of work required and disagreements within them often doubling the time needed. There was, however, the potential for neighbourhood plans to become more prominent, not least because of Covid’s forced emphasis on the local and the 10-minute neighbourhood idea and digitisation perhaps offering more scope to engage younger generations to planning.
Caroline Harper, Chief Planner, LB Barking & Dagenham, said she was a healthy sceptic about neighbourhood planning, viewing them as a ‘distraction’ and often presenting documents which are not ‘worthwhile’ or ‘useful’. ‘I’m fairly anti having rafts of planning policy documents’, she said. ‘I think there’s far too many of them and do welcome the digitisation in the white paper. I think it needs to go further than that. It needs to condense things’.
Kaye Stout, Partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards said reading her own local plan had felt ‘very much like a protection racket’, and, reading between the lines that it was like people trying to retain the area’s status quo, not even identifying sites for housing. But further research had shown her that for many it was about having a good understanding of their localities and ensuring consultants took their knowledge into account. ‘Who can argue with that?’. ‘When it’s working and at its best it can be really fantastic and really helpful’. Arita Morris, Director, Child Graddon Lewis, added that plans and statements arising from the local community had ‘hit a wall’ when it came to designing because it was then about height, scale or looks. ‘Ultimately what happened was there was a very small committed group who were involved were protectionist in their views’. That had shown a conflict between the neighbourhood forum and other amenity groups in the area, so the neighbourhood plan was unreflective of the broader community. ‘I didn’t believe in the importance of it in the end’. The Planning White Paper, however, undermined what the neighbourhood plans are there for, Morris added, through MHCLG ‘dictats’ on housing delivery and zoning. ‘What’s left for the neighbourhood plan to do?’.
West said on the subject of the white paper that there was a lot of engagement in Westminster in the neighbourhood planning process and to take it all away to replace it with a design code did seem like a ‘stripping back’ of the Localism Act gave those forums. ‘It’s perhaps been a little bit veiled in the white paper and is perhaps not that clear that that may be the result of the changes that are happening’.
O’Donnell added that he was concerned about the wider ‘centralising of planning’ evident in policy directions such as over the use classes order and permitted development. ‘Neighbourhood planners and councillors as well are getting less influence over development’, said O’Donnell. ‘Power seems to be leaking away’.