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How to empower neighbourhood planning

Tino Hernandez, RTPI Head of Communications, speaks to three Planning Aid staff about what it’s like to work for one of Europe’s leading community engagement organisations.

In March, a consortium led by Locality, which included the RTPI, was contracted to provide neighbourhood planning support as part of the new Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme. This marked the latest chapter in the development of Planning Aid celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Over the past six months, Planning Aid England (PAE), run by the RTPI, has helped more than 170 local groups get to grips with the new neighbourhood planning process. Planning minister Nick Boles recently told a reception at the House of Commons that  “without Planning Aid, there would be no neighbourhood planning”. 
John Romanski is PAE’s senior Planning Advisor, manages ten staff and is recognised as an authority on the new neighbourhood planning process. A former senior planner at Savills with a background in local authority development management, John now uses his expertise to ensure communities have an effective voice through first class support, information and training.
“Different communities need different types of support. Some only need light touch support. Others, especially at the start, need a lot more assistance.”
Through his previous roles John built up a strong knowledge of the application of planning policy. Having handled hundreds of planning applications and appeals, he now uses his experience to advise communities. One of John’s key roles is to allocate groups who have successfully applied for support. He reports directly to PAE director Professor Gavin Parker, who is responsible for overall strategy. 
“Perhaps the most difficult part of my role is managing expectations of the groups we work with and to ensure they get the most appropriate level of support,” he explains.

"Different communities need different types of help and support. Every group is different"

Catherine Middleton is Quality Assurance advisor for PAE, a varied role that involves managing the system for PAE volunteers and ensuring there are systems in place to support them, such as the database and web-based platforms. With almost 900 volunteers it’s a busy job. Crucially, volunteers' skills and preferences need to be matched up with the volunteering opportunities available. 
Catherine’s background is in housing and regeneration and she is currently on secondment to PAE.  She coordinates the most popular neighbourhood planning information bulletin – with over 1,400 subscribers – which she developed from scratch, as well as the authoritative Neighbourhood Planning Forum. Catherine is also responsible for ensuring there is shared learning and compiles case studies to publicise best practice. 
“Our volunteers are our most valuable resource. We need to support them in the best way possible. It is also vital that the community groups have access to information about what is happening in other parts of the country.”
PAE Advisor Chris Anderson (see opposite) helps community groups to prepare neighbourhood plans. Chris has worked in local government and began his career in transport planning policy. 
“The advisors, who mainly work regionally, are the ones with direct contact with the groups, along with the RTPI volunteers. All groups are at different stages. and I could be giving a simple talk or running a workshop.
"Sometimes the groups just need answers to questions. You are often there as a sounding board and my job is not to do the work for a group but empower them. A key part of my role is to build up relationships with the groups. I love seeing people empowered. The ideal situation is to work with a group and then to step aside and let them get on with it.”
For further information about working for Planning Aid England, contact [email protected]


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