Localism gives people the chance to make real changes

Author: Alex Thomson, in the Times   |  

Planning is a Krakatoa policy. For years it lies dormant with only the barest murmur on the political seismograph, and then it erupts. And this summer it has certainly erupted – it cannot have escaped the attention of even the most cursory of newspaper readers that planning has been something of a political hot potato in recent months. The coalition Government has been under sustained attack from certain quarters for its proposed National Planning Policy Framework.

But there is another, much less heralded, strand to the Government’s reforms of the planning system that has the potential to have equally profound consequences for the way our villages, towns and cities evolve in the coming decades. The Government’s Localism Bill, currently nearing the end of its parliamentary journey, contains provisions that will allow parish councils and other specified neighbourhood groups to create new ‘neighbourhood plans’ which, if supported in a local referendum, will be incorporated into local plans.

While you may not immediately be wondering how you get started on your own plan, if the Government is right, you may well be thinking about it before long – they estimate that, within a decade, over half of all English neighbourhoods will have instigated a plan. So what will the impact of all this be? Well, we at Localis think this is a good thing. Our recent report – ‘Power to the People’ – produced in partnership with Birmingham City Council and Land Securities, looks at how neighbourhood planning might work, and concludes that it could lead to a more positive attitude to planning from all parties involved, and ultimately help drive national growth, from the bottom up, in the years ahead.

Drawing lessons from a series of case studies from across the country, the report concludes that residents, developers and local authorities all have much to gain from a more open system built upon co-operation. In particular, the report scotches fears that neighbourhood planning will be hijacked by NIMBYs. Instead, the report argues that giving people a stake in planning their neighbourhoods not only fosters a greater trust in the planning process, but can deliver incremental development which creates growth but does not lead to untrammeled development regardless of community views. Our research also suggests that by capturing the views of every element of the community including previously hard to reach groups, the new system has the potential to change perceptions of planning for the better, and produce outcomes more reflective of local feeling.

What is needed to make this bottom-up revolution work? Our report offers a series of recommendations for those involved. Crucially, given our finding that early engagement leads to better outcomes, we argue it is essential that all parties should seek to capitalise on opportunities to trigger community involvement as soon as feasible. For local authorities, they have a crucial leadership role to play, including acting as ‘honest brokers’ between developer and resident interests, and providing an overarching strategic vision for delivering growth. For developers, we suggest they should seize the opportunity for collaboration, and the creation of a more efficient, less confrontational planning system. And most importantly of all, communities should recognise that neighbourhood planning offers radically increased powers to shape where they live, and for the long term – they should make use of them.

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