Localism: no worries

This is a guest post by John Dixon (Plymouth Borough Council) as part of our series on ‘Blueprints for ‘open source’ planning’

What does the future hold for the planning system and should we be worried?  I want to concentrate on the central plank of the Coalitions policy: Localism.

So what is Localism?  There are a few clues in the documentation put out so far: its …”giving neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants liveenabling communities to formulate a positive vision of their future sustainable development.”  And what does this mean for planning? Again a few clues: “…local people and their accountable local governments can produce their own distinctive local policiesdesigning a local plan from the bottom up starting with the aspirations of neighbourhoodsmandating that all local authorities use collaborative democratic methods in drawing up their local plans

What Localism doesn’t mean is: no development.  There is a clear recognition that we still need homes and jobs and therefore that development is inherently good: we come across such phrases as…”we will provide incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including homes and businesseswe need to reinvigorate our construction and development industries… and…find imaginative and sustainable solutions.”  There are also references to the importance of planning for infrastructure provision, and the capturing of contributions from development in the form of local tariffs. Delivery is one of the key messages here.

So what then of the role of the planner in this new localism agenda?  Planning has always been about balancing the competing interests within communities and ensuring that it isn’t only the loudest voices that get heard.  Planning and indeed local democracy is about acting in the wider and often long term interests of the community – what may be the popular option today may actually not be in the best interests of the community in the long term, and vice versa. 

But encouraging the local community to get more involved requires investment of time, effort and resources.  The Big Society will not happen without some upfront investment.  Many individuals and indeed communities lack the capacity to get involved in local planning issues.  Providing the community with these resources will be a challenge in this time of extreme financial restraint but an essential one if we are to make the policy of localism work.  And planners should be well placed to take the lead in enabling communities to better articulate their needs and aspirations and then to help them to deliver.

And finally how can this be achieved?  Well I believe there are many examples out there, where local authorities, working within the spirit if not the letter of the existing regime, are delivering localism.  Some examples from Plymouth illustrate the point:

1. Vision for Plymouth

We commissioned, some years ago, and through our Local Strategic Partnership, a Vision for Plymouth.  This has widespread community support and buy-in from the main city agencies.  Importantly it also had cross party support from Civic Leaders.  It is this Vision that has driven not only our LDF, the majority of which is now adopted, but also the work of other departments and agencies, ensuring that as a community at the city level we are all working to a locally determined vision.

2. Sustainable Neighbourhoods DPD

Plymouth will soon be publishing the pre submission version of our Sustainable Neighbourhoods DPD, which sits alongside the Urban Fringe DPD being prepared in partnership with neighbouring authorities.  This has taken a bottom-up approach, with a year of involvement from each of the 43 neighbourhoods across the city.  This has resulted in clear visions for each community based on their needs and aspirations and will form the basis for future interventions by planners and, crucially, by other agencies.

3. Consultative Forum

Plymouth is a key partner in the Tamar Estuaries Consultative Forum which brings the marine related communities together with the other key stakeholders enabling them to shape marine planning in such a way that it fully integrates with the emerging new marine spatial plans as defined in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.  The key challenge now will be integrating the new marine planning process with terrestrial planning whilst ensuring that local communities continue to have a full and active role.

4. Stepping stones to Nature

We are a year into our Stepping Stones to Nature programme which enables communities to actively engage in their local green spaces.  Our partnership approach involves local service providers and residents in both development and delivery of projects.  This ensures that both capital improvements and ongoing maintenance meet the community’s needs.  Using a range of inclusive methods, the project aims to increase physical activity levels and build capacity for informed local participation. 

So what is the key message here?

First, that planners should not be fearful of the new agenda, there is a central and important role for planners in delivering localism. Second, that the new Coalition Government should not rush into a major overhaul of the existing planning system.  We have come a long way since the spirit engendered in the 2001 Green Paper: Delivering Fundamental Change and much of that has been good, and, crucially, fits with the new agenda: spatial plans, community involvement, front loading, infrastructure planning, sustainable development etc etc.  Maybe the letter of the subsequent Acts and Regulations were a little overbearing but with a few minor tweaks and a good deal of creativity, localism can be delivered within the existing system without major modification.

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