Some thoughts on Neighbourhood Planning
We attended an interesting conference on Neighbourhood Planning a couple of weeks ago in Ealing organised by the Neighbourhood Forums in that part of west London, including West Ealing, Central Acton and West Hampstead. It was a great learning experience for us – to see how much neighbourhood planning has evolved from its humble beginnings in the Localism Bill passed in 2011, but also understanding the mechanisms and practical action needed to set up a Forum and develop a Plan. It seemed initially that Neighbourhood Forums would be set up and become a tool for NIMBYism at best and at worst a way of allowing rural Tory strongholds to restrict development in their green and glorious countryside locations – whereas what we seemed to be witnessing is possibly the beginnings a transfer of power from a centralised government to localised citizen groupings.
However, it was clear that there needs to be a huge investment of time and human toil in organising and getting through the red tape and bureaucracy involved in the set-up of a designated area, creating the forum, developing and ratifying a plan, passing it under referendum run by local authority – all this with a distinct lack of encouragement or assistance from councils in many cases.
And of course there were the problems raised of how to develop local plans in areas where there are equally sized but opposed groups of people, with diametrically opposite views for what their local planning policies should be. For example, Stamford Hill in Hackney has divided the community into two opposed camps; or Bermondsey which currently is deciding on four different and overlapping neighbourhood forum designations.
On a historical note, it is interesting to see how the shift towards localism is happening. Back in 2006 a series of essays came out exploring “double devolution” for example, calling for new rights at a neighbourhood level with “the creation of neighbourhood bodies with significant powers over the issues that matter most locally…”. Hazel Blears in 2011, when she was secretary for communities and local government applied three tests for a localism agenda to work, which were “if the Government provides the necessary funding, a practical framework for a partnership between government and communities, and fairness to ensure that all communities are given the same opportunities”
At the moment there is clearly a lack of funding. More worryingly there is the potential democratic failure, not only because a referendum cannot be the only basis for consensus, but who defines who is in and who is out? And should it be up to Local Authorities, who have to approve the process at every stage, to judge? And once implemented who becomes accountable? Is the risk that neighbourhood forums create local oligopolies of people with the time and interests to get involved?
Hearing from the ground there is a lot of work being put into setting up forums, talking to community groups and neighbours in an area, producing a neighbourhood plan, which – when there is consensus – can be potentially a powerful tool for local demands to be heard and developed into planning tools. Even the process of defining an area during the neighbourhood area designation stage there is a huge amount of implicit political action – going out of one’s own local contacts to connect with other established groups to ask them how they want to shape the plan. Again, this depends on the outreach and who is included. The on-going process of defining boundaries also defines place-ness, which depends on the activities at a local area that tie people together and which constitute the creation of a place.
Some interesting places worth mentioning in London are for example Wards Corner Community Coalition Forum in Tottenham which has recently been set up by community activists who were involved in resisting the whole-scale redevelopment and clearing of the Wards Corner market. Another interesting example is the Heathrow Village Neighbourhood Forum set up following the successful anti-airport group Grow Heathrow and Transition Heathrow, followed by the recent re-emergence of the possibility of London’s airport expansions.
Which brings me to the second problem, or indeed opportunity – what planning tools based on land use can work at a local level to address issues of deprivation, under investment, lack of skills and jobs, improving housing and services. Can neighbourhood plans really can be used to develop some creative, radical and progressive local planning policies and projects to address the needs expressed at local level? For example, tapping into the experiences of the consultation input to London Plan by the Just Space group and the London Tenants Federation, for example, around fairer access to housing and local services. Or some of Transition Town’s stronger groups in the UK context who have developed not only policies, but concrete projects based on local alliances of community interests which reflect not only short term agendas but also factoring in longer term concerns around climate change and social justice.
One last point, which struck us, were the range of techniques being used during the consultation stages and formation of neighbourhood forums and plans. Indeed, some techniques were deliberately used to challenge the notion of “consultation” to deepen the relationship and ownership over the plan that local people might have. Angela Koch has been working in this area for the last five years, developing a series of in-situ happenings as tools for engagement, consultation, and neighbourhood forum formation in her work in North London with Imagine Places. Also the use of online community mapping tools have been useful as well as online portals for sharing of information. These seem to be still developing and could tie into all sorts of existing platforms which are online, interactive and can engage parts of the community who perhaps had not been involved through more traditional avenues. Neighbourhood Planning 2.0 perhaps as Commonplace have been developing an app to comment on local issues. These tools can all help us find new approaches for more progressive and inclusive local planning, moving consultation towards ownership and achieving greater local power. We look forward to getting involved and seeing how things progress!