Posted 23 December 2015
NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANNING SEMINAR, BIRMINGHAM
26 NOVEMBER 2015
This was the last of the CPD events for 2015, and a very useful insight into all aspects of neighbourhood planning from those directly involved in their preparation, examination and implementation, and from those conducting research into their influence on the democratic planning process.
From an initial slow take up there has been a notable uplift in the number of neighbourhood plans coming forward. That has perhaps been aided by the availability and strict deadlines of early stage funding. However, there is also a growing desire for local communities to be involved in the future planning of their area in order to enable or control growth, and more local planning authorities are now recognising the positive role of Neighbourhood Plans.
The policy and guidance changes and the evolving legal context have not, however, eased the process or the understanding of those involved in it, and that will continue to be a challenge. Indeed, it was suggested that the technical requirements of Neighbourhood Plans often limits their ability to address the specific matters of concern or aspirations of local communities, and in that regard do they really meet the Localism objectives that they were originally intended to address?
The seminar highlighted how critical it is to establish clear aims and objectives for each plan at the outset. There is no generic solution or approach. Each plan must have an individual focus on matters specific to the area; be it enabling growth, improving infrastructure, securing regeneration, guiding design, or conserving assets. Moreover, a locally specific response to the identified matters effectively utilising local knowledge is required.
Notwithstanding that, the essential foundations of a “good” plan were identified: a robust evidence base and community engagement that goes beyond consultation into problem solving through early participation and collaborative working. The seminar also highlighted the clear benefits of a proficient health check prior to examination as a cost-effective means of testing whether the plan meets the “basic conditions” required of it, and can achieve what it is intended to do (for example, through the use of appropriate policy wording).
Looking forward, perhaps the greatest challenge in neighbourhood planning is encouraging and facilitating the delivery of plans in the areas where they are most needed, either because there is a real need for growth or regeneration and/or there is no adopted Local Plan. The high take up of plans in affluent areas is telling. In those areas Parish and Town Councils already have a structure and a perceived legitimacy in the process, the required resources are more readily available, and the motivation often comes from an unhappiness with higher tier Local Plans and a desire to control development in their area. The inevitable geographical imbalance of available skills and resources is a recognised issue for planning democracy that can leave the less affluent and vocal disengaged from the process.
It is perhaps not surprising that the neighbourhood planning process has been somewhat chaotic thus far, but best practice is now emerging from the growing wealth of experience, and it is clear that planners will continue to have a very important role as enablers in the process.