Seminar 1 – Blog

Seminar 1

As part of this seminar series we have been asking a series of PhD students, Early Career Researchers and academics to contribute to the discussion by producing short blog posts providing their perspective on each seminar.

Future-proofing Neighbourhood Planning: Updating Para 198 NPPG

Antonia Layard, Law, University of Bristol (see Antonia’s profile here)

The late German Sociologist, Ulrich Beck, coined the expression “organised irresponsibility” (“organisierte unverantwortlichkeit” in German). He argued that major technological risks – nuclear power, genetic modification and climate change, for instance – were highly regulated and yet no one was ultimately responsible to prevent them. Richard Dunning (on this blog) has made a similar argument about housebuilding. Suggesting that “in a chocolate box of policies, localism is the fudge”, he has argued that in order to understand how we can increase housing supply, “we need to debate who should be responsible for providing the solution to the UK’s housing supply crisis before we discuss tweaks to the system. Only by understanding who is responsible can a clear framework be created to facilitate significant housing supply.”

This raises the question: can neighbourhoods be responsible for facilitating greater housing supply? To answer this we need to understand how the responsibility for house-building is shared between different scales of governance. We also need to understand how opportunity is shared between the private, public and third sectors, bringing in the broadest possible range of housing providers. As the presentation by DCLG at the first Seminar illustrated, some neighbourhoods – in Thame, Broughton Astley and Woodcote – have overcome initial opposition to housebuilding to ‘plan positively’ (to use the terms of the NPPF). This gives neighbourhoods power (to make planning policy or grant permission); responsibility (to meet need and support growth) and investment (up to 35% of CIL). If neighbourhood plans are adopted, paragraph 198 of the NPPG, states that where “a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted”.

But what if a plan is in preparation? Can neighbourhoods see off unwelcome applications for planning permission? Can they take responsibility for their own household allocation? Not everybody thinks so. Some local authorities have not been confident in relying on emerging neighbourhood plan allocations. Developers have challenged even completed neighbourhood plans, both in appeals and in evidence. Community participants are discouraged, believing that neighbourhood plans are merely a “sop” or a “fig leaf”. On the other hand, there has been an important decision in Broughton Astley, where the Secretary of State countered a planning application by preferring housing allocations in the adopted neighbourhood plan, giving these “significant weight”. This approach was legally upheld in the Crane litigation. More significantly still, in Devizes and Rolleston on Dove, the Secretary of State has given similar weight to site allocation policies in emerging neighbourhood plans, drawing on paragraph 216 of the NPPF.

But can neighbourhoods and local authorities be confident that emerging neighbourhood plans will always be given significant weight? To future proof the governance system, we need to amend paragraph 198 of the NPPF. Specifically, it needs an explicit reference to emerging plans so that even in the absence of a local authority local plan or sufficient five year housing supply the neighbourhood vision – if sufficiently positive – can prevail. This sends a vital signal to neighbourhoods – and others – that their hard work in the planning process, over years, will yield positive results and that they cannot be “pipped to the post”. There is growing consensus that neighbourhood planning can work, by involving local communities in decisions about housebuilding can increase supply by making marginal sites viable, supporting a broad range – and additional – modes of delivery and making suitable ‘rightsized’ accommodation available for key and often overlooked groups and individuals in neighbourhoods. Giving neighbourhoods the opportunity to genuinely plan for their own future, particularly with CIL moneys for neighbourhood facilities, is more of an incentive, than individualised financial compensation.

Neighbourhood planning can increase housing supply. Of course resources need to be invested to ensure that all communities can engage in this way. Localism remains a voluntary system but all who want to engage should be supported in doing so. Undoubtedly then, the answer to the question “can neighbourhoods be responsible for facilitating greater housing supply?” is yes. We can have organised responsibility – where collaboration between scales – national, local and neighbourhood – is both enabled and protected. To future proof this responsibility, however, encouraging community participants to put in the significant amount of effort to take it on, we need to adjust paragraph 198 of the NPPG. This will give neighbourhood planners confidence that their emerging plans will have genuine weight.

Evidence as a Passion Killer: The Need to Decouple the Everyday Experience of Place from a National Housing Crisis

Chris Maidment, Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield (see Chris’ profile here)

The rapid spread of Neighbourhood Plans reminds that, if nothing else, there is a large group of extraordinary people out there, who care deeply about how their communities should develop, or how they should be preserved in aspic. Drawing on this passion, neighbourhood planning arguably presents a rare opportunity within the current English planning system to achieve the holy grail of planning theory; the making of a plan in a truly communicative manner. The community-led nature of the plan should ensure that anyone using jargon will be politely asked to refrain. Meanwhile planning for an area geographically small in scale significantly improves the chances of getting all of the stakeholders around a single, albeit rather large, table. These are the things held up as crucial to successful consensus building.

If a plan covers the area of a neighbourhood it does not seem unreasonable to posit that its impacts on day-to-day life will be equally limited in geographical scope. To this end it is arguable that those best placed to understand how day-to-day life in a place might be improved are those who currently live there, those whose everyday lives are directly impacted by the quality of the place. The difficulty comes when the definition of stakeholder is widened to include those might live there in the future but who cannot currently do so because of a lack of housing, affordable or otherwise. Such ‘stakeholders’ cannot represent themselves but are instead reliant on their needs being represented by others around the table.

Herein lies a tension. In a context where planning is obsessed with ‘deliverability’ housing targets and allocations must be underpinned with robust evidence.  Continuing tendencies toward planning by appeal illustrate how even Local Authorities struggle to get this right. Those at the first seminar heard how housebuilders operate cautiously and will likely never deliver the quantities of housing necessary to address the most conservative estimates of the English housing shortage. Equally it was reported how the New Homes Bonus had had a limited impact in the face of significant local government cuts and how cash payments (bribes) to communities were unlikely to overcome opposition to new housing. Better infrastructure and more jobs might. However the current state of local government finance makes it difficult to achieve infrastructure improvements without funding them through developer contributions.

Despite all of this, under Neighbourhood Planning, communities may choose for themselves a role in devising housing targets and allocating sites, so long as they can bring together the evidence to underpin this. Arguably this is to over-burden communities involved in Neighbourhood Planning by failing to address a basic question; what is the role of a local authority? There is a need to address housing shortage whether neighbourhoods wish to accommodate new homes or not. Asking communities to muddle through the complicated evidence for this is surely the quickest way to kill any passion for getting involved in planning, and with it any chance of an open dialogue. Addressing the gap between what housebuilders provide and what is needed has, in the past, been a crucial function of local authorities. Equally we should remind ourselves that planning has typically been the purview of local authorities because understanding the evidence and the broader picture is a full time job.

So what should be the role of a Neighbourhood Plan? Neighbourhoods may have to accept new housing but that doesn’t mean that new housing shouldn’t have to respond to the existing character of a place. Certainly I suspect that a key factor in the resistance to new housing is the poor quality of recent new housing developments, and its poor integration into places. So Neighbourhood Plans should be about defining what it is that new housing needs to fit in with. Equally if we dare to think of a time when local authorities may again build houses in significant quantities we regain the ability to decouple infrastructure improvements from the housing developments that currently fund them. Only then may those involved in Neighbourhood Planning be truly free to think about how the day-to-day experience of place may be improved for those that already live there, and the place that they leave for future generations. In common with other posts this is not about denigrating the value of day-to-day experiences in understanding the problems that planning needs to tackle. It is about saying that unpaid local volunteers should not be burdened with tackling a crisis that is national in scale and time-consuming in its complication.

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.

Whose crisis is housing supply? – Richard Dunning, University of Sheffield 

Richard Dunning from the University of Sheffield (see his academic profile *here*)

Who hurts as a result of the housing supply crisis? The emerging consensus is the poor, the marginalized, the young, those with work limitations, and increasingly the middle classes. Who though is responsible for alleviating their stress? Who is going to own the housing supply crisis?

In the chocolate box of policies, Localism is the fudge. It’s the political grand narrative, facilitated by and in turn facilitating Neighbourhood Planning. A narrative that hides hard underlying truths with a chocolate-flavoured democratic coating. Localism shifts responsibility from the national to the neighbourhood scale. The national government no longer chews on hard decisions, nor is the local authority enfranchised to, instead local communities (with varying amounts of experience, energy and social capital) take on the responsibility of determining the location of homes through their Neighbourhood Plan. The combined outcome of these plans, it is assumed, will meet the nations’ housing supply needs. Fudge mastication it turns out is a multi-located problem.

To realize the metaphor, with no national plan, who is going to own the national housing crisis and who is going to take responsibility for the solution to a local housing supply shortage? The local community or the local authority? The local government or private builders? The individual or the community? If the latter, which community and who gets to draw the boundaries around it?

In an eclectic mix of presentations at the Neighbourhoods, Planning and Housing Supply seminar an array of insights into potential solutions were put forward. However, the focus of most papers was on practical limitations. Whether the limitations of current housing policies, the practices of private housebuilders, institutional investors, self-builders, co-housing or the philanthropy of middle class activists. These valuable insights did provide new evidence of the complexity of housing supply. However, as atomistic approaches focusing on practical limitations they could never combine to a single credible alternative, nor answer the question about responsibility.

One paper took an alternative, macro approach. Antonia Layard’s overview of the legal framework for planning and housing targets considered the layers of legislation and responsibility. Is the law capable of answering the question “who owns the crisis?” No. Legally it’s as clear as a contaminated brownfield site. NPPF numbers overlaid by Local Plans, with a mesh of Neighbourhood Planning thrown on top results in no discernible change in housing supply nationally. Nor does it provide a clear responsibility for defining targets or delivery mechanism, resulting in a large increase in work for lawyers, litigation against local governments and antithetical judgements.

This legal complexity provides evidence for part of the reason why the housing supply crisis is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. In a complex institutional arrangement of social relations, actors and governance structures policy makers tweaking at the margins (without a comprehensive goal) is unlikely to create a joined up solution, however locally embedded it is. Where no entity is taking responsibility for the solution an ambition of 250,000 or 300,000 new homes per annum looks hopeless and largely meaningless

Localism, despite some if it’s opponent’s rhetoric, is not an inherently evil concept. It does, however, obfuscate responsibility for the housing supply crisis. Pitting: private developers against local authority; neighbourhood against neighbourhood; and local democracy against local government.

Local solutions can come from local forums; local people do have insights into development locations and housing type. However, these solutions will only act consistently in the nations’ interests if there is a wider holistic framework for determining housing supply.

Discussions about this new framework should not begin with practicalities, rather they require a moral and political focus. We need to debate who should be responsible for providing the solution to the UK’s housing supply crisis before we discuss tweaks to the system. Only by understanding who is responsible can a clear framework be created to facilitate significant housing supply.

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

Will Sparling, Leeds Beckett University

Twitter:            @will_sparling
LinkedIn:         William Sparling

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.


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