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Specialists debate current state of neighbourhood planning

Words: Laura Edgar
Neighbourhood planning webinar

The glass is very much half full when it comes to neighbourhood planning, according to speakers at today’s Planner Magazine webinar.

The event, sponsored by RTPI Conferences, saw specialists debating the current state of localism’s “poster child”.

Giving a personal view of neighbourhood planning, Liz Beth, planning consultant at LB Planning, spoke on whether the current state of neighbourhood planning represented direct democracy in action.

From the outset, Beth said, localism seemed to present some interesting opportunities for widening community involvement in planning to a variety of organisations. Three actions – neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders, the terminations of higher lever regional strategies and the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework – all played to the decentralisation agenda of the new government. It “offer[s] potentially radical change to the way planning in England works.”

To date over 1,500 communities have started to prepare a neighbourhood plan. “Planning policy has never had so much street cred, and I suggest this is because there are real powers on offer. The main attributes of direct democracy are participation, deliberation and empowerment.”

Some groups had risen well to the occasion and engaged the ‘hard to reach’ people in their communities, said Beth – but urban areas can suffer because they do not have a parish council to start the neighbourhood plan process. Beth suggested that the neighbourhood plan process for urban areas may need rethinking.

Beth accepted that there were “worrying signs” that central power is reasserting itself, but argued that authorities decentralising needed to keep faith with the process, even when decisions are not to their liking.

Tony Burton, director of Civic Voice and planning consultant, spoke on whether the sheen was coming off localism.

There is no doubt for Burton that neighbourhood planning has had a remarkable impact in the less than five years. It is truly “the poster child of localism”, he said, with increasing numbers of people turning out for neighbourhood plan referendums than local elections.

However, Burton said there are too many local authorities being “obstructive and dragging their heels” and there are many areas where neighbourhoods cross political and local authority boundaries. There are also “no guarantees that local authorities will actually deliver on the policies in neighbourhood plans even when they go through the process and become a formal part of the statutory development plan”.

There are also contradictions in localism. The lack of control that local communities have over the conversion of offices to residential, and the way they have been “forced” to accept starter homes, were just some of the examples Burton gave.

Localism is “bigger than party politics”, said Burton, and politicians are following the trends, not leading them. Localism, Burton concluded, “is here to stay”.

Speaking about conflict, John Romanski, neighbourhood planning advisor at Planning Aid England, claimed neighbourhood planning had gone a long way to reducing levels of conflict and is instead bringing communities and planners together.

Conflict, according to Romanski, can be a choice. Sometimes, however, people don’t know they are conflicting with planning policy. “Not all groups are aware of strategic policies while sometimes they are aware of them but not the implications of them.” Indeed, he added, some people are only involved in a neighbourhood plan in order to create conflict with the local plan.

If conflict is not managed, an inspector could modify plans and make them unrecognisable, meaning groups could end up challenging the very plan they helped make.

To avoid conflict, Romanski said that understanding the rules of engagement was important. “The first thing that groups need to do is meet with the local planning authority. Very early on identify with what those strategic policies are, what is set in stone and what can be discussed. Meet early and regularly with the planners. […] Make sure evidence is robust and future proof your plan.”

Huw Morris, The Planner’s consultant editor, offered a word of caution and admired the optimism of the other speakers.

He said: “Many planning consultants, senior planners in local government, backbench politicians, lawyers and lobbyists think localism ran into the sand three years ago.

“The onset of planning deregulation, office to residential reforms, starter homes and forthcoming housing and planning legislation showed greater centralisation.

“It’s quite obvious there is a substantial element within the government, particularly at the very top, who don’t believe in planning as we know it full stop, never mind localism and never mind neighbourhood planning”, he added.

Liz Beth kindly asnwered some of your questions post-event. Read our Q&A: Neighbourhood planning here.

Listen to the webinar on demand.

You can also read our neighbourhood planning Q&A with Liz Beth, who answered some of your questions after the event. - See more at: http://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/neighbourhood-planning-webinar-available-on-demand#sthash.Hl5xqJyK.dpuf
You can also read our neighbourhood planning Q&A with Liz Beth, who answered some of your questions after the event. - See more at: http://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/neighbourhood-planning-webinar-available-on-demand#sthash.Hl5xqJyK.dpuf