Neighbourhood Planning – more art than science

One of the lovely things about working at PAS is the mix of work. One day I’ll be right in the detail of resourcing planning departments, the next I’ll be helping deliver our horizon-scanning events on planning reform. Another part of the job that I have slowly begun to enjoy is presenting. In order for me to do it well, I’ve learnt I need to believe what I’m saying. And therefore when I had to present our slot on “neighbourhood planning” recently I began by reviewing my thoughts. And then, as often happens, under some robust questions from a very hot floor in Leeds I realised I know even less than I’d hoped. 

Challenges to the Planning Advisory Service

To begin, selfishly, with a PAS perspective I think neighbourhood planning represents a real challenge to our way of doing things. We’re not quite pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap, but we definitely see one of our strengths in our economy of scale. And we (by and large) get away with it because core strategies all relied on PPS12 and some core themes to be demonstrated at examination.

In contrast, neighbourhood plans are micro-local. Their purposes are not just different to core strategies, but different to each other. I suspect that one of our first tasks is to create a list of the main varieties of NP. Having got some kind of taxonomy together, only then can we then begin to help with frameworks, recycling and being critical friend to:

  • Parish plan ( design guide)
  • Amenity plan  (local infrastructure and vehicle for CIL)
  • Town centre plan (shop fronts, grills, extraction)
  • Local delivery plan (community right to build)

Lessons from the pilots front runners

It’s my view that the front runners are not particularly helpful yet. I began by looking at a summary of what they were trying to achieve through their neighbourhood plans. The answers (housing, transport, vitality of shopping centres) are mostly strategic issues. They might be useful as barometers of confidence that neighbourhoods have in their Council’s planning department, but not of what neighbourhood plans can achieve.

Similarly the front runners are unable to test out the neighbourhood planning process, because the powers to make neighbourhood plans do not exist yet. These are, mostly, rebadged AAP processes.

Readiness of Councils

Depending on where the question gets asked, I’ve seen between 10 and 25% of council people say they are actively gearing up for neighbourhood plans. And those people who are not expecting them to come forward are content to do nothing. But it’s my view that it will only take one positive news story of the community that played the game and ended up with a new sports hall with its “meaningful proportion” of CIL for neighbourhood plans to suddenly take off nationally.

And the good news is that preparations need not be expensive or lots of hassle.  Here is my rough & ready checklist:

  1. Publish a process: who should people apply to ? (ward councillor ?)
  2. Publish the rules: what is your approach to recognising neighbourhood forums ? (how representative do you require them to be ? Where is your comfort that they are rowing in the same direction as you ? Should your ward councillors have a role ?)
  3. Think about scale: particularly in urban contexts, people will have a very localised view of their neighbourhood. But if you begin to recognise neighbourhood areas covering only parts of a ward you will end up with an expensive mish-mash of tiny fiefdoms. Set expectations early.
  4. Think about local priorities: Many people are worried about resourcing neighbourhood plans. But my guess is that the resourcing requirements of a NP will have their own lifecycle, with investment up-front tailing off as the thing gets on its feet. For this reason you don’t want them all to start at the same time.
  5. Understand your plan ‘B’: The more work you devolve to neighbourhood plans the more important they can become to helping you deliver planning objectives. But you will never have control and will be vulnerable to key players losing interest or moving away. Understand what your options are.

The questions from the floor

Despite the almost sauna-like conditions in Leeds (not often that sentence gets written) there was a concerted counter-attack from the floor – a pincer movement involving both councillors and officers.

It was in response to my argument that good planners have always recognised that planning is as much ‘art’ as ‘science’, and that neighbourhood planning was just a little more balanced towards art. In short, I argued, get out there and pin down the issues that people cared about without getting hung up on process or about whether the output would be a neighbourhood plan or better community engagement on an AAP.

But I got called out on the fact that involving the community is just plain hard. I think at the time I blustered a little about how these things were not absolute, and that we could be confident that however imperfect we were definitely getting better than our predecessors.

I’ve chewed over this since. Yes, it’s tricky to get people to invest their time in something long-term and not particularly tangible. It’s also the case that people will sometimes feel more comfortable defining themselves in opposition to something rather than in support of something else. You need someone close to the action who can interpret and provide a constructive framework within which to have some tough debates. This is a ward councillor.

To go further – the straight answer to the councillor who asked me “how do I get local people involved in planning when they won’t even answer their door ?” is to give up on them and to make it up. Neighbourhood plans are never going to be a genuinely democratic process because these things fail before they start. Instead it’s for ward councillors to harness the keen, remember the silent majority and make a reasonable fist of things. Always listening, sometimes disagreeing.

So, under a bit of push-back from the audience I’m a bit clearer on what I believe:

  • Local authorities are under-prepared (even though such preparations are cheap and easy)
  • Councils will get the neighbourhood plans they deserve
  • The most important success factor will be the engagement of ward councillors, and in general most of them don’t want to be engaged with ‘planning’ (but love their ‘place’)

Time to drop the ‘p’ word ?

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One thought on “Neighbourhood Planning – more art than science

  1. What a disappointing article. I led a Village Plan Group for 6 years to produce a clear view of the future. Our village has a parish boundary in it so one of the recommendations ( SEpt 2009) was for a review – it is just about to start (Oct 2011). One PC did not wish the review to start so are holding up the process. With the exception of one item of land use, the remainder of the published Village Plan was accepted and approved by both PCs. So far, the Borough Council have not only taken no action, but held up some excellent ideas. We had a vision of a VIllage Trust to be funded from Council land sales to enable familes to be brought together – parents to be near children and vice versa – ignored. Quirk made an excellent situation vaailable for unused / syplus public sector buildings – “yes good idea!” – no action.

    The only correct statement is that Local Councils are unprepared. However, Warwickshire have over 250 Parish Plans.

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