Planning and the Big Society

in 'What is the Big Society' - NALC

Author: Richard Carr   |  

As one of two groups (the other being a neighbourhood forum) able to develop a neighbourhood plan, parish councils will have a vital role to play once the Localism Bill is enacted ? offering an established structure to guide communities through potential early uncertainties regarding the process, and providing a means to link planner and resident going forward. Though neighbourhood planning front runners such as Tattenhall in Cheshire offer an insight into how existing structures are coping with this policy evolution, it is equally important to think about the parish council of tomorrow. These may, it seems, be more urban than hitherto ? since 2008 parish councils have been permitted in London, and bids are in the pipeline from London Field’s in Hackney, and Wapping, as well as the example below. Times, it appears, are changing.

Groups such as the Queen’s Park Forum (QPF) in West London are showing how communities can be mobilised to take an interest in their neighbourhood, even where a formal parish council structure does not yet exist. The forum, whose initial foundation in 2003 was partly triggered by a desire to look after the local park, has mushroomed into an organisation looking to shape the area in a wider sense. After canvassing residents’ demand for such a body, in 2006 elections were held to the QPF ? which saw a turnout of over 20%, and 21 residents standing for office. Importantly, the QPF has not just attracted the usual suspects, but has helped attract a new, young group of people to the political process. If planning is to represent those with the greatest stake in its outcome, it will need to seek out the young who, after all, will have to live with its consequences the longest.

The QPF is also illustrative of the link between parishisation and planning. Under the provisions of the localism bill, parish councils are set to be given some real teeth. They will be able to bring forth neighbourhood plans, and help galvanise the community from which they emerge behind them (necessary to win the automatic referendum they trigger). Early engagement, research consistently reveals, is vital in ensuring a positive planning system, and forums such as the QPF help take the contemporary pulse. For an area such as planning ? where accusations of special interests have often dominated the debate ? the democratic aspect of parishisation cannot be overlooked. To truly speak of ?power to the people,? they will actually have to wield it.

In 2008 the QPF published their neighbourhood plan. Though non-binding, it indicated a desire amongst locals to play a role in helping plan their community’s future (certainly calls for ‘improving the environment for future generations’ and making it a ‘model of disabled’ access do not augur a lack of ambition). Little surprise then that in early 2011, just months after the draft Localism Bill had formally linked parish councils and town planning, the QPF launched its bid for parish council status. In June they presented a 1600 signature petition to Westminster Council (double the required amount), who are currently reviewing the application.

Both the planning process and local residents alike can gain from their intertwining. Whilst gaining absolute consensus behind any given plan is unlikely, devolving planning to the lowest possible level produces a greater degree of understanding in the process. Planning is complex and difficult. Involving residents through parish councils not only helps them see the necessary tradeoffs inherent in the system, but helps them shape their locality whilst doing so. Despite the claims of some, all roads do not have to lead to NIMBYism. If, as mooted, parish councils gain access to development incentives such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and New Homes Bonus this may also produce a shift in attitudes. From merely (sometimes grudgingly) accepting the case by case use of Section 106 monies, parish councils may well be given access to a pot of money which can be used for more overarching, community wide purposes. With power will come responsibility, but hopefully also a greater trust in the democratic process, and an ability to place shape.

As the QPF illustrates, there is a latent demand amongst residents to help shape neighbourhoods. The General Power of Competence ? which allows local authorities (including, where applicable, parish councils) to do anything that is not explicitly barred by statute ? offers an opportunity for those who wish to plan to do so creatively. And if localism means subsidiarity where possible, then this is an important moment for our democracy. If the public really are as tired as contemporary polls indicate with politicians in general, then there could be few better ways to break this cycle than to get people involved in the nitty-gritty of local planning.

Though a defining moment, the Localism Bill does not reinvent the planning wheel. For it to have the most rewarding consequences, both in terms ensuring of sustainable growth and gaining a consensus behind it, it is important that the lowest rung on the political ladder ? the parish council ? becomes actively engaged. Whether it be through finding potential planners, instructing them as to their purpose, or canvassing local feeling, the success of the new national planning policy framework may depend as much on community hall as it does Whitehall. It will be interesting to see where all this goes next.

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