Growth and Localism: uncomfortable bedfellows?

Growth and Localism: uncomfortable bedfellows?

Neighbourhood Planning and its potential

Tessa Lynn, School of Real Estate and Planning, University of Reading  (see Tessa’s profile here)

As Peter Matthews highlighted in a recent seminar on NP, “we need to talk about NIMBYs”, referring to empirical evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey 2010, emphasising that there is most opposition where housing is needed the most. As expected, development is prevented by particular communities because the material costs outweigh the benefits to not only residents, particularly homeowners, in the immediate area but also the wider community.

But are attitudes changing? The British Social Attitudes survey 2014 shows that 56% of those surveyed demonstrated their support for new housebuilding in their area, 28 points higher than the previous survey in 2010. Also the numbers opposed to local housebuilding have more than halved, to just 1 in 5. Can neighbourhood planning take any credit for this?

A study carried out in 2012, demonstrates that the twin goals of growth and localism could be reconciled only if understanding and awareness can be developed throughout the process. Research carried out on Community Led Plans in the South East showed that of 1,047 CLPs, 486 were related to housing, with 220 specifically on affordable housing, this is without the pro-growth nature that NDPs present. This is contrary to many commentators who assumed that NIMBYist attitudes would prevail in neighbourhoods engaging with CLP.

It was noted in this research that the role of neutral intermediaries was seen as important in gaining trust. However, the evaluation of neighbourhood planning (User experience of neighbourhood planning, 2014), demonstrates the need for co-production; communities simply cannot be expected to create a NDP for their area alone. The ‘intermediaries’ involved in neighbourhood plans are private consultants (69% of groups had used paid consultants, the majority of which viewed them as essential to the process) with one group paying £82,000 for consultancy. This professionalization of the process is concerning if it means that communities learn from the process and about the issues involved.

The evaluation also highlighted that a significant 44% said that neighbourhood planning is not what they expected; involving more work and more bureaucracy and 72% indicated that NP had been more burdensome than expected. Some felt that it hadn’t delivered as much power or control as anticipated. Some interviewees felt that it was a full time job to manage the process, putting serious strain on key individuals who were leading with the plan. However, it is not all doom and gloom; 91% of interviewees indicated that generally the neighbourhood planning process had gone well.

There is the potential for NDP to form that long needed bridge between informal ‘bottom-up’ community planning models and the more formal ‘top-down’ strategic planning, but perhaps we could learn more from the more traditional practices of CLP. Rather than the funds that communities raise to develop a NDP going to private companies and individuals, surely it is better suited for funds to go to struggling organisations such as planning aid, who have a database of volunteers or rural community councils, who already have a wealth of experience working with communities via their community development workers and housing enablers.

Whose responsibility is housebuilding? Morally and politically speaking, we cannot continue to rely on the private sector and ultimately the economy to respond to the dire housing situation we are in; that is an important part of what has got us in this situation in the first place. Yes, neighbourhood planning can help increase housing supply, and more of a focus on neighbourhood planning is certainly the moral route to take but it certainly is not the solution to addressing the demand for homes. Neighbourhood planning take-up would increase considerably once people felt confidence that they would actually be able to influence development. At the moment people are sceptical about the motives of government and developers, they are desperate because they want housing to be suitable for the needs of local people and not to rely on something that is primarily about making a profit, so they engage in neighbourhood planning in order to have ‘some’ influence, but it is not enough… It is about time we determine and raise the role of the public sector and not-for-profit organisations in housebuilding, in order to balance-off the monetary motives involved in building homes for families and individuals.

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