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Planning reforms – hearing the community voice

Tony Burton CBE

29 November 2021

The Government’s Planning White Paper tells us that the “Government has heard how the combination of technical jargon and traditional models of community engagement discourages people from having their say on decisions” and includes a commitment “to create great communities through world-class civic engagement”. The White Paper didn’t look much further than a welcome investment in digital and for many proposed reducing engagement by removing public consultation over planning applications in many areas. Subsequent events suggest the direction of planning reforms is turning in a different direction and incoming Secretary of State has talked of a planning system where “ultimately the community has a role in determining what is right”.

There’s no shortage of ideas in play. Influential think tanks have provided a raft of ideas from micro-level decision making through street votes to communities green lighting development of waste land in their neighbourhood. Others have pointed to the opportunities for local communities to take much more control over the use of funds raised through the community infrastructure levy.

These and other ideas have their place in the debate but too little is being heard about existing approaches that are already breaking free from “traditional models” and giving communities not only a more influential voice but also putting power and influence directly into their hands. This blog commends two – community review and neighbourhood planning in cities - which have already earned their spurs and are just waiting to play a much bigger role in the choices over where and how we build.

Community Review

Community review has its genesis in the well-established practice of professional design review. This brings small teams of independent experts in relevant disciplines to provide rapid-fire critique of development proposals at a formative stage in the planning process. It has proven its worth time and again in improving the quality of development. Community review gives voice to a different type of expertise – the authentic local knowledge and insight that comes from people living in a place, understanding how it works and knowing what matters. Small groups of local residents recruited for their local knowledge and civic-spirit and representing nobody are demonstrating their critical abilities in reviewing and improving development proposals well before they become planning applications. The impact of straight talking common sense on both developers and local authority officers when offered through an agreed process is readily apparent to anyone observing a Community Review.

Community Review also supports the welcome new public policy focus on the quality of design and the importance of beauty. It is one way to break through traditional thinking and shine a light on the gulf that too often exists between development proposals and what works for a community. The approach is already part of the everyday planning process in a growing number of local authorities – Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Ealing, Dacorum, Old Oak & Park Royal Development Corporation – and with the costs charged to developers, as with design review, it doesn’t come at much additional cost to the public finances. A recent briefing from Frame Projects, which provides an independent secretariat for multiple Community Review Groups, shows how it is working in practice and also confirms how successful Community Review has been in ensuring diverse voices are informing planning decisions.

Community Review is no panacea. It cannot be at the expense of existing community engagement and works within the framework of existing policy. It is only as good as the developer’s ability to listen and respond and the local planning authority’s openness to making different planning decisions. Yet, in its own modest way, Community Review is bringing new and stronger community voices to bear on the quality of new development. The time is ripe for it to become normal to the way planning decisions are being made across the country.

Neighbourhood Planning

Neighbourhood planning has truly come of age. It is more than a decade since the first pioneering communities exercised their rights to produce neighbourhood plans. Most local authorities have a completed plan and there are now more than three times more neighbourhood plans than Local Plans. On average, nine out of 10 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. As part of the development plan they carry direct legal weight, have been tested on appeal and in the courts, and their influence is spreading.

The experience of communities with neighbourhood planning has been mixed. For many it has been relatively plain sailing, with a supportive local authority, effective town or parish council and a committed local community. Yet approaching four in five of the population do not live in a parished area and town and parish councils are all but absent from most of our cities. This means a new community organisation (a neighbourhood forum) is needed to prepare the plan and this also disrupts existing power relationships with ward councillors and planning officers with significant consequences.

Despite the extra hurdles urban neighbourhood planning has grown and there are, for example, now 25 completed plans in London. These show how communities can grapple with the complexity of development in both Zone 1 and the suburbs. Neighbourhood plans are being prepared by areas that are less well advantaged and they are also pioneering new planning policies on salient issues such as air pollution, overheating and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Neighbourhood planning can still feel like it is swimming against the tide. It is taking neighbourhood forums in London on average over four years to move get from designation to referendum, a growing number of forums are becoming stuck after designation, and the number of new forums coming on stream has declined from a peak of 18 to two per year. Eight London boroughs are neighbourhood planning “deserts” with no designated neighbourhood forums – Harrow, Newham, City of London, Merton, Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Bromley and Croydon.

The geography of neighbourhood planning in the capital presents a complex picture. There is no clear correlation with levels of deprivation, home ownership 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 of London, London Councils, central government and the councillors and officers in London’s boroughs.

There is no denying that the Mayor and most of the boroughs see neighbourhood planning as a challenge to their power and would like to wish it away. 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 which were a lacuna of the draft London Plan. A survey of borough Local Plans in 2017 by Neighbourhood Planners.London showed that only five boroughs gave serious attention to neighbourhood planning. A 2018 report concluded that only one borough (Lambeth) was meeting legal requirements to set out in its Statement of Community Involvement how neighbourhood planning would be supported. A 2021 report showed it was becoming harder not easier for new neighbourhood forums to be designated and many local authorities were putting questionable hoops in the way. In some extreme cases well advanced neighbourhood forums, such as Deptford and Mill Hill, have been stopped in their tracks by local authorities unwilling to renew their five year term despite years of volunteer effort. Volunteer neighbourhood planners often observe a “conspiracy of silence” from politicians and policymakers – with ever-greater emphasis placed by the Mayor and local politicians on the importance of community engagement, yet a refusal to seize the potential of neighbourhood planning as a ready-made means to bring this to life.

The planning reforms provide the opportunity to break this conspiracy and realise neighbourhood planning’s potential. The process for neighbourhood planning is essentially sound. While improvements can be made, the priority isn’t new legislation but action to improve the support and resources neighbourhood planning is given and to address the culture which results in too many local authorities ignoring or resisting the benefits.

Neighbourhood planning has much to offer the rest of the planning system as well. The Planning White Paper states that “local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans. Our reforms will democratise the planning process by putting a new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage.” This radical re-invention can learn lessons from the best of neighbourhood planning which so often provides a refreshing alternative to the complex, text heavy, jargon ridden, turgid, legalistic, remote, slow and inaccessible approaches run by local planning authorities. The ways in which the best neighbourhood plans are prepared are:

· Simple to navigate

· Highly visual

· Iterative

· Responsive to rapid changes in the planning context

· Local

· Relevant to lives

· Face to face

· Using accessible language

Nor is this just a debate about the principle of effective engagement and the untapped opportunities of participatory democracy. Neighbourhood planners in London are already demonstrating their value to some of the crunchiest planning issues of our time:

1. Community consent – London’s accommodation of eye-watering levels of housing development without spreading outwards will require the controversial transformation of many existing residential areas. Neighbourhood planning can secure the community consent on which development ultimately depends.

2. 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 demonstrate how they can identify small sites missed by boroughs and bring them forward more quickly.

3. 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.

4. Changing work patterns – As the demand for new and flexible working practices grows, neighbourhood planning is well positioned to provide flexibility at the very local level of the individual street or small employment area

5. Quality design – In response to the growing focus on quality design and architecture, neighbourhood planning is often more able to reflect community views and introduce design codes and policies that help create great places

6. 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 express community consent.

7. Added resources – With local authorities saying they lack the resources to undertake the additional workloads envisaged by planning reforms, neighbourhood planning can bring additional planning resources at low cost. Volunteers with relevant backgrounds and expertise contribute because they care deeply about their local neighbourhood and its future.

8. 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, bringing principles of community engagement, collaboration and co-design to life.

9. 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.

10. Addressing uncertainty – In an increasingly uncertain world, major infrastructure projects may stall or fail to attract government funding, while landowner decisions may change. In view of these and similar possibilities, there is scope to exploit the speed and responsiveness that the neighbourhood planning framework allows (when not obstructed). Strategic plans, such as the London Plan and many Local Plans provide a “Plan A” running to hundreds of pages premised on optimistic assumptions about the future. As well as helping to deliver this, neighbourhood plans can help to provide a bespoke “Plan B” where events do not unfold as hoped or expected.

When the restart button is pushed on the currently paused planning reforms we need to expect much more to deliver on the commitment to a planning system providing “world class civic engagement”. It’s time for a change and neighbourhood planning and community review need to be a much bigger part of the planning system’s future.

Tony Burton CBE is a community campaigner and land use planner who has worked in senior roles at CPRE and the National Trust and founded Civic Voice. He convenes Neighbourhood Planners.London, is secretary of his local civic society in Mitcham and chairs CPRE London and Community Review Groups in Old Oak & Park Royal and Dacorum. Tony can be found on Twitter as @Tony4Place


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