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Planning aid volunteers are vital to neighbourhood planning

Neighbourhood planning

John Romanski, senior Planning Aid England (PAE)adviser, talks about the success PAE has achieved through its volunteers’ hard work

More than 150 neighbourhood plans have now been passed at local referendums, making it a good time to reflect on how PAE has supported local communities to engage with neighbourhood planning and shape their areas. In helping to reach this milestone, PAE has made a considerable contribution to the development of knowledge and capacity within communities, enabling them to play powerful roles in the neighbourhood planning process, a regime designed to empower them to exert greater influence over the shape and function of their neighbourhoods.

The most significant element of this has been the Department of Communities and Local Government-funded Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning (SCNP) programme, which saw PAE support more than 270 groups developing neighbourhood plans across England.

Local volunteers worked tirelessly to provide over 900 days of support across a range of activities, drawing on a unique breadth of experience and expertise.

“Planning Aid were extremely helpful in providing guidance to our community team. Their workshops were well prepared and helped get the team rapidly up the learning curve on some key aspects of neighbourhood planning” David George, Whitchurch Town Council

One PAE volunteer has even been nominated for the 2016 Volunteer Planner of the Year, a new category in the RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence, for work undertaken with a deprived community seeking to develop an inner city neighbourhood plan.

In addition to providing direct support, PAE has produced 39 guidance notes to comprehensively explain how to create a neighbourhood plan – everything from setting up a neighbourhood plan group to commissioning a planning consultant. Volunteers were keen to ensure that these notes were helpful for communities in terms of both language and content. The feedback on this has been fantastic.

PAE tools and templates can be found here.

On top of face-to-face work and guidance notes, our core services continue to be well used. The advice line now responds to 3,000 queries a year. Volunteers have contributed to the service by making themselves available to answer queries and provide specialist knowledge.

Volunteers have also supported our online resource Planning Aid Direct by identifying, writing and reviewing content on our behalf. This has resulted in a resource of more than 100 planning advisory notes that command at least 2,000 views a month. We will continue to build up this one-stop shop in response to the issues that advice line callers raise.

We have set up volunteer PAE task groups with the RTPI English Regions. They are helping to shape the service regionally by identifying volunteer outreach opportunities and promoting what we do. Our volunteers are our eyes and ears, providing invaluable local knowledge, and we are very much in their debt for their contribution to our work.

More recently, our volunteers have supported a number of local plan consultations in areas of deprivation, providing an independent and impartial voice that has helped local planning authorities reach out to people with differing needs and views. Our volunteers have also worked with communities faced with estate regeneration, empowering them to be able to respond to consultations, and providing support for at least 50 pieces of casework across the country. Our volunteers have also assisted fellow volunteers. We have a number of student volunteers who, owing to a lack of experience, do not have the confidence or experience to be able to support communities, so senior volunteers have also mentored them.

It is always important to reflect on and celebrate our work and successes. PAE has helped many communities across England to take control of their neighbourhood’s future by giving them the tools and skills to have a say. Our regions are in a constant state of flux, continually facing new challenges, so PAE’s work is as critical as ever. We are working on how PAE can best support communities to engage with the planning system and influence policy and decision-making. We’ll revisit this later in the year. In the interim we are always looking for volunteers.

Volunteering is a great way to use your planning knowledge to give something back to the community while learning new skills, building professional networks and gaining continual professional development. To join, please visit the RTPI website.

John Romanski is senior Planning Aid England (PAE) adviser

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