Neighbourhood Planning and Big Society

I did a podcast yesterday. It seemed like a good idea at the time – a briefing for councillors that could be tailored for delivery across the land. We do it once, and save a couple of hundred people the headache. The result, I’m afraid, is grim. For those of you that cannot bear to listen to what Mrs Richardprichard describes as my earnestly adenoidal Kent accent, the interesting thing is repeated below.

The risk has changed
For those of us that have followed this for a while, it is important to give ourselves a little mental jolt. Repeat after me – “neighbourhood plans facilitate development“. For a long time, we worried that middle class neighbourhoods would gang together, united against ghastly new developments involving Tescos and/or affordable housing. This NIMBY-land is no longer a real risk (unless your core strategy says something very similar which is unlikely to be the case).
More interestingly, the risk is not that development gets stifled but that it gets hijacked. Some “single interest” groups are well able to mobilise opinion to sway a referendum. There is an opportunity for people who feel that they’ve not been well served by the planning system to get cracking here – and once the neighbourhood development order is in place there is no further opportunity for review at committee.
This stuff is difficult to report because of cultural sensitivities, but I have heard quiet mutterings from various people – it’s muslim enclaves in one place and travellers’ communities in another. The freedom to empower neighbourhoods must (to be meaningful) be accompanied by a risk that neighbourhoods may mobilise to move themselves in a direction that may not suit the broader, long-term objectives of sustainable places.

The key decision
When I talk to politicians about neighbourhood planning they feel much more optimistic than officers. Broadly, the opportunities for devolving the planning burden to town centre management teams or tenants organisations fits well with them.
And, in non-parished areas, ward councillors are quite pragmatic. Despite it being quite counter to the spirit of the localism bill, some of them are intending to go out and conquer the territory. Once they have “arranged” a ward-level plan, no one else can submit a neighbourhood plan for the same place. And this is not because they worry about being a turkey arranging a christmas dinner – it’s because they couldn’t be bothered with the stress of dealing with lots of sub-ward level groups trying to hijack the development process for their own ends.
The key decision – for councillors – is about how proactive they want to be. And, being elected in the first place to represent their communities, I think the smart money is on them being properly involved right from the off.

Watch this space
As you’d expect, there are bundles of other issues with the localism bill. But the two biggies are neighbourhood planning and whether the fines for missing waste planning targets end up being charged to local authorities. Although the fines thing may exist only in my mind.
There is much more to come on this topic, so this opinion will self-destruct in one month. Hopefully by then, I will have had a voice coach and cheered up. So I leave you with one question:
Neighbourhood plans – symbol of Big Society and responsible people feeling engaged or emblematic of a rubbish Council that has failed to listen properly ?

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