Neighbourhood planning and sustainability: mutually exclusive?

Popular opinion amongst planners and environmentalists is that neighbourhood planning and climate change don’t go together. But is that necessarily true and what does it mean for the rest of the principles behind localism and planning? In this post I look at choices and decision-making in the context of localism and sustainability. I think there is a way to nudge people into making the best decision for themselves and the planet.

Localism isn’t just about devolving decision-making. It’s about the idea that people need and want to be involved in providing services and being active in their community.  Thanks to a nef paper on localism (reference below), I’ve been able to broaden my thinking about what this means for people and the decisions they can make about the places they live in.

The Localism Bill includes the provision for people to come together through a local parish or neighbourhood forum and decide where development should go and what it should look like.  A councillor recently asked our policy team whether this meant that a neighbourhood plan could rule out wind turbines in their area. The answer was ‘yes’, technically this could happen. However, the neighbourhood plan has to be in line with national policy and the strategic vision for the wider area. But what if there is no strategic context for energy and sustainable development? This could mean that neighbourhoods can start saying ‘no’ to renewable energy faster than we are prepared for.

Will neighbourhoods take decisions to manage their area in a way that won’t harm the rest of the world?  After all, these plans are supposed to be about promoting development, which is difficult to do sustainably.

To put this debate in perspective, the nef paper points out that localism isn’t new. It cites Cardinal Manning’s doctrine from the 1890s that ‘decisions should be taken as far as possible by those that are most affected by them.’ If we think about that in terms of climate change and planning it seems to mean that the communities being affected by rising sea-level should be making development decisions for the biggest emitting countries. Well that’s unlikely. Can we expect neighbourhoods to make spatial plans that address climate change if they don’t think the consequences of climate change affect them now?

The coalition government loves the idea that people should be empowered to choose everything for themselves. At the heart of this is the much-loved current thinking about getting people to make the right decisions: nudge. They love it because it’s cheap. I love it because it makes sense and used in the right context, it can be really powerful. But can people be nudged into making the right decisions about their community when the long-term effects of that decision aren’t fully understood?

The basic premise of Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness (reference below) is explained really well in a recent editorial in the BMJ called One nudge forward, two steps back (reference below). The authors explain:

Much of our behaviour is automatic or follows perceived norms, and it relies on poor information about consequences or overinterpretation of misleading information. Consequently, nudging is based on the principle that it is legitimate to influence people’s behaviour to make their lives healthier (paternalism), but that such influence should be unobtrusive and not entail compulsion (libertarian).”

For example, you could nudge people into choosing a healthier and carbon free form of transportation by improving cycling lanes. Or you could make some information more salient to people, such as the cost of their energy use in comparison to others, to get them to use less energy.

Could this work for spatial planning and more specifically, for neighbourhood planning?  It’s more about effective communication than nudging, per se. Planners could help communities make low carbon neighbourhood plans by making the most sustainable option the most salient option. To be the most salient, it has to be the one that lines up with their other aspirations for the area – safer, healthier, greener or whatever they might be. You’d have to make it clear why sustainable design and construction is good for them now, regardless of climate change. Because most people will not see their neighbourhood plan as directly affecting the climate even though as planners, we know it will.


Links and references
Bonell C, McKee M, Fletcher A, Wilkinson P, Haines A. One nudge forward, two steps back, BMJ 2011; 342:d401. Click here to read.

Boyle D, Localism: Unravelling the Supplicant State, new economics foundation, 2009. Click here to read.

Thaler R, Sunstein C. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press, 2009.  See the nudge blog here.

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