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Debate: Engaging communities in plan and place-making

Words: Laura Edgar
Community / Shutterstock: 144653342

At a #planning4people summit held by the Town and Country Planning Association, speakers Helen Hayes MP, John Howell OBE MP, and Baroness Kate Parminter stressed the importance of engaging communities in plan and place-making.

Planning is about negotiations


Helen Hayes, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, told the audience that planning should really be about negotiation between:

  • Communities and those who want to build in them;

  • Councils representing the interests of residents who need a home and residents who already have a home;

  • The proponents of different land uses – our need for homes, but also for jobs, for open space, for leisure opportunities, for essential infrastructure; and

  • Difference views on design, design quality, on what beauty is, and on what makes a good place to live.

“Planning should be the kind of arena in which all of those are taking place and are laid out,” said Hayes, who said it is better when informal consent is sought and gained from communities by engaging with them.

Engagement takes time and should be resourced


Hayes said she had seen examples of the intention to engage, she said, but added “it isn’t really thought of as something that needs to be resourced in terms of time within the project plan or in terms of money and staffing”.

“Good engagement needs to be properly resourced. It takes time to prepare plans, organise community planning events, and it takes time to absorb all of that feedback - to enable it to make a difference and enable change,” she said.

Centralising measures in Housing and Planning Bill


The 2011 Localism Act did “some really positive” things for local planning, Hayes said, in particular the introduction of neighbourhood planning, which gave the community-led planning process teeth.

But she expressed concerns about centralising measures in the Housing and Planning Bill, including permission in principle, the extension of permitted development, the provision for the government to take over local plans if one has not yet been done, and the reduction in s.106 obligations and Community Infrastructure Levy.

While she thinks neighbourhood planning is positive, Hayes also believes the process is “cumbersome” and technical. It is, she said, time consuming and it “creates issues” around the representation and the diversity of those participating. She said of the groups she knows about the participants are “often older, white and more affluent, and they are already homeowners”.

She ended by saying she thought good and effective community engagement “is absolutely vital” and one of the “keys to addressing the housing crisis”.

Neighbourhood planning not a sole responsibility


John Howell, Conservative MP for Henley, who holds responsibility for neighbourhood planning, said it is important to bear in mind it is focused on the production of a separate plan, “but it is not a sole responsibility”.

“It is a shared responsibility between the community and between their local borough or district council. The two have to work together to exercise that and deliver that responsibility.” 

He said neighbourhood planning is an opportunity for the community to help shape an area and should not take away the necessary arguments. Neighbourhood planning takes those arguments and “has them in effect behind closed doors before developers are knocking at the door wanting to build on the site”.



Howell spoke of two neighbourhood plans in his constituency that were “poles apart”. Both plans were successful and upheld by an inspector.

Thame, he said, spend £120,000 on theirs, as they tried to create a mini local plan, while Woodcote “spent virtually nothing of its own money” - just the central and local government grants available.

Talking about Woodcote, Howell said that if the villagers had been asked before undertaking a neighbourhood plan what they thought of development they would have said they “hated” it. If they are asked now “they will say they can see the merits of development - “they can see the benefits to the community and they see how it sets out the vision they have for the village”.

“[Engaging with the community] is simply the right thing to do” – Hayes

The turning point for residents was when they sat down and looked at the village and then to its future. Howell said residents told him they “didn’t want it to be a village of old farts” and to lose what they valued.

He told the audience he is optimistic for the future of neighbourhood planning. Referring to the time it takes to produce one, Howell said: “We shouldn’t expect it to be done very quickly or done on the back of a cigarette packet.”

He advised people to start a neighbourhood plan with the end point - the referendum - and then work back to fit the rest of the work into the process.

Neighbourhood plans not reaching everyone


Baroness Kate Parminter, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said although there are increasingly more examples of neighbourhood planning across the country “it’s failing particular communities. There are some they just are not quite reaching” because of complexity and shrinking local authority resources.

Planning by appeal not an encouragement


Parminter said a number of local authorities still have a problem with local plans and with giving planning permission by appeal. This does not, she said, offer any incentive or encouragement to local communities to “think that a neighbourhood plan is going to work for them because they see in so many areas that it about planning by appeal. Therefore, the mood is not conducive to more planning”.

Engagement needed early on in process


Parminter said Liberal Democrats are “struck by the need” for formal community engagement early in the planning process. While neighbourhood planning is something that can be built on, it isn’t a formal enough way to engage the community in a large development to ensure that the design is right, that the needs of the community are met, not just the need for more housing.

“I would like to see a form of compulsory requirement put on developers to go through various pre-application engagement similar to charrette-based approaches.”

Disparity between rights of developers and rights of communities


She added that there seems to be “very much a disparity between the rights of developers and the rights of the local communities”.

Parminter highlighted that during the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats were unable to persuade the Conservatives that allowing a right of appeal for communities was the route to follow, although the impetus for it was growing and the party would push for it.

She said local planning should be continued and built on, community engagement should be strengthened, and a democratic right of appeal should be looked at for the end of the process.

“But crucially, let’s have the right political signals coming from the centre.”

Image credit | Shuttershock