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Neighbourhood planning is up and running – now lets make it fly

By: Tony Burton, founder, Civic Voice
Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - 21:48 GMT Jump to Comments

The Localism Act 2011 gives local communities a real say over the future development of their area via town and parish councils or specially convened neighbourhood forums

Neighbourhood planning is one of the great success stories of localism, and has already engaged more than 1,000 communities in England.

Now town and parish councils, or specially convened neighbourhood forums, can provide local communities with a real say over the future development of their area. Where individual neighbourhood plans have been developed so far, they have received overwhelming support from the communities they cover via local referendums that are part of the adoption process. 

That said, there should be 10,000 communities involved, not 1,000, and many that could benefit most from this means of local improvement have never heard of it. So what needs to change?

Government funding and support has been essential to the success of neighbourhood planning, but there needs to be more, to support communities at the earliest stages and increase the proportion of activity outside rural, parish areas.

This means developing a communications programme that gets beyond those already professionally engaged with planning and development to reach people that have a wider interest in improving their local area. Learning needs to be much more integral to the funding and support programme, with action on local skills development in planning and community development and a wider approach to developing community rights.

There should also be more focus on the outcomes of bringing people together to take action to improve their local area, not just for the purpose of producing a neighbourhood plan.

One of the most disappointing features of activity to date has been the lack of engagement of statutory agencies and transport, health and utility providers, despite best efforts of parish councils and neighbourhood forums to involve them. A duty to engage on all these bodies would give a useful boost to neighbourhood planning, as would a specific communications programme to raise their awareness of it.

The powers and status of town and parish councils in relation to neighbourhood planning need to be extended to the neighbourhood forums that have to be established to take plans forward in urban areas where the former do not exist. The process of developing these forums into parish council equivalents in urban areas needs to be accelerated.

Currently, where parish councils exist, they have the exclusive right to produce a neighbourhood plan for their area, which also means they can effectively block them. Where is happens, there should be a means to establish a neighbourhood forum as an alternative vehicle to take forward the community’s aspirations.

Neighbourhood planning has been described as a power shift from local authorities to local communities, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest resistance from LPAs in the form of applications being ignored or neighbourhood forums and parish councils being required to answer questions well above the requirements of the legislation.

There is currently no requirement on local authorities to make decisions at key stages in a timely manner, and the pace of decision-making can be frustratingly slow, especially if authorities refuse to consider applications outside a rigid six monthly committee cycle.

Some local authorities have asked for significant amendments to the boundary of the proposed neighbourhood planning area, for obscure reasons. Changes may be so significant that an entirely new neighbourhood forum needs to be set up.

Alternatively, the local authority may decide to undertake major research or produce a supplementary planning document that coincides with the area of their neighbourhood plan. In these cases, the motive may have more to do with keeping control than supporting the community and responding to the spirit of localism.

Now that neighbourhood planning has been in place for a couple of years, it is clear that there could be some improvements to the process itself. The two-stage requirements for public engagement on neighbourhood plans are clumsy and inefficient, and there should be a means of resolving conflicts with the local authority, prior to referendum, that is less weighted in their favour. Requirements for reviewing plans once in place, and what is involved in changing them, should also receive attention.

Public confidence in the Government’s commitment to localism in general and neighbourhood planning in particular is undermined by contradictory Government decisions. The widening of permitted development rights to convert offices to flats is one recent example of an issue that has denied neighbourhood planners the ability to influence some of the most important issues in their local area.

So, while neighbourhood planning has its challenges, it is beginning to transform the confidence of communities in taking control of their own destiny.  It is also harnessing new ways to get people more involved.  Digital and online platforms to support neighbourhood planning are growing. These will be presented and discussed at a special event on digital tools and neighbourhood planning on 8 July, hosted by Nesta.

You can find out more about the event here and access Tony Burton’s guide to making neighbourhood planning simple here.

Tony Burton – free range planning and environmental consultant; exec chair: Sustainable Homes; vice chair: Big Lottery Fund; founder: Civic Voice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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