Where next for Neighbourhood Planning?

Where next for Neighbourhood Planning? – Will Sparling, Leeds Beckett University

Neighbourhood Planning, capital ‘N’ and capital ‘P’, is now taking place in 1600 neighbourhoods across England, with over 60 successful referendums. These 60 plans have passed the full test. They are in ‘general conformity’ with strategic planning policy and meet the other basic conditions. Most importantly, the people on the electoral roll in the Neighbourhood Area have endorsed the plans in a simple majority – yes or no – vote. In the Leeds City Council local authority area, there are approximately 40 Neighbourhood Plans underway in rural, suburban and inner-urban areas. That figure is constantly and rapidly increasing.

The question ‘how do we expand to the 14 000?’ was raised at the Neighbourhoods, Planning and Housing Supply seminar at the Department for Communities and Local Government in London on the 13th of March. To create Neighbourhood Plans in their current format, there needs to be a stimulus for people to get involved. Currently, this motivation varies greatly between areas due to the individual, distinctive nature of the issues they are facing.

Questions about ‘What is success?’ or the legitimacy of the number of Neighbourhood Plans that have ‘made-it’ in around four years aside – where do we go from here? If Neighbourhood Planning is here to stay and indications from politicians suggesting that it is, then we need to make Neighbourhood Planning into a method for wider public service delivery at the neighbourhood level. Improving the offer for urban neighbourhoods, supporting them to make improvements, improving the quality of life and, crucially – attracting house builders and inward investment – may be part of the answer.

There is a clear, widely-expected and overarching reason for people to get involved in Neighbourhood Planning. The attempt to have better (not just more) control over decisions being made on the perceived problems their locality is experiencing. Many areas are creating plans which respond to those perceived problems in two ways: through policies and projects.

The policy is where a Neighbourhood Plan currently has ‘teeth’ in decision-making (how much, will emerge over time). The local planning authority will use Neighbourhood Plans as part of a range of other tools to decide on planning applications. To reach that point, they are examined independently and only move to the next stage if they meet certain checks known as the ‘basic conditions’. The projects do not need to ‘pass’ this stage.

Nonetheless, the projects within Neighbourhood Plans that are being created in Leeds are very important to the groups producing them and the people within the wider Neighbourhood Area. The City-Council is actively encouraging this approach. Neighbourhood Forums (and parish and town councils) are being positively supported to write projects which amplify their policy. In urban areas the process is also being used as a convening tool to bring together the forum, various departments of the local authority and other local organisations

Not only are forums wishing to include small-scale ‘community projects’ such as installing noticeboards, placing new sympathetic street furniture or planting flower beds, they are thinking about wider strategic issues (many of which are needed to support housebuilding) and how their neighbourhood might respond to them. Inner-urban forums are discussing complex highways and public transport issues and priorities, making their neighbourhood ‘child-friendly’ and improving their neighbourhood’s infrastructure for older people. Groups have also been involved in discussing how they can deliver wider health priorities at the neighbourhood level, expand Conservation Areas and establish new ones.

So, how do we take Neighbourhood Planning to the next level? Urban areas have been much slower to respond to Neighbourhood Planning, for a variety of reasons. The ones that have are finding it a worthwhile effort. All of the project themes mentioned above are from ‘inner-urban’ areas and are the driver in getting people motivated and up-for the challenge of making a Neighbourhood Plan. In these ‘inner-urban’ areas, once in full swing, people want to discuss how their neighbourhood can make a contribution to wider strategic priorities, not least building new homes and supporting infrastructure. The trick so far has been to create a mixture of robust planning policy from their aspirations and ideas, with the rest being taken up as projects. Perhaps the next trick is to contemplate how to shift away from projects to legally-binding policy in other sectors such as transport, health and highways. A true neighbourhood plan for public services, capital ‘N’ and capital ‘P’, with teeth.

Will Sparling is based at Leeds Beckett University undertaking his PhD on Post-political Neighbourhood Planning in Leeds

Twitter:            @will_sparling
LinkedIn:         William Sparling

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