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Making progress - neighbourhood planning in London

Jon Herbert

Last November I had the pleasure of speaking at an Urban Design London 'Working with Communities' event. My slot focused on neighbourhood planning and asked why progress on this in London has perhaps lagged behind that in other part of the country. This is not to say that great strides haven’t been made over the last five years, but that perhaps more could be done to enable progress.

The latest figures released by DCLG show that more than 2,000 communities across the country are involved in neighbourhood planning, and that more than 200 plans have now been ‘made’, with many more progressing to referendum. By contrast, only five plans have been ‘made’ in London. So why is that?

At the turn of the year I asked the London boroughs that question. A questionnaire was sent to local authority officers and was set in the context of the impact of the duty to support. There was a 40% response to the questionnaire, with respondents covering inner and outer London, north, south, east and west, those boroughs where neighbourhood plans have caught on, and those where they haven’t. Some of the reasons cited why progress has been slower include skills, time and resources, and what is an appropriate plan area. So turning to those…

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, neighbourhood planner…

Why this heading? Because as a neighbourhood planner you’ll be involved in a whole range of tasks, engaging with people, collecting and analysing data, drawing up plans and policies. This can of course be exciting, but means a whole range of skills are needed: many of these will reside in the neighbourhood area, but help is likely to be needed, particularly around policy drafting.

Getting policy right is a crucial part of the process. It is important to make sure that the plan and its policies can help do what you want, and that they can be effectively used by the local authority to help deliver and enforce this. This is one of the most important messages for neighbourhood planning: the plan-maker is different to the plan-implementer. This means that to be successful, the Forum and local authority really do need to work together. But it also means looking beyond this, to engage with landowners, developers, businesses and statutory consultees. This can be overwhelming and there is a strong role here for local authorities in helping to facilitate these discussions.

But we hear from some communities that they are frustrated by limited support from local authorities. Equally though, we are told that support is difficult to provide for – that it is often asked for on an ad-hoc basis, and that every plan, and the support required is different.

So what can be done?

Well, the changes proposed in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill will help. Local Planning Aauthorities s will be required to set out their offer and package of support in updated Statements of Community Involvement. This will help support to be provided at the right time.

But it could go further. I’d suggest that Forums and Authorities should come together as soon as an area is designated for planning purposes, to consider the scope of the plan, how it might be approached, and what support can be provided, when. As a good practice example, some Forums have agreed Memoranda of Understanding with the Council at the outset, providing a commitment to attending consultation events, to reviewing and commenting on material, to providing advice in a timely fashion, and to having a named contact for the plan.

However, ‘timely fashion’ is also an issue. Back in 2011 I undertook a survey of all authorities in England to ask how long they thought it would take to prepare a neighbourhood plan. Most said up to two years, from starting through to submission. With the submission, examination, referendum and making of the plan to follow you could be looking at three years. Is that too long? I think so – particularly when you are reliant on people to give up their own time to work on the plan: it is important to maintain interest and momentum.

So getting a ‘plan for the plan’ in place is one of the key first steps for anyone involved in neighbourhood planning: setting out what will be done and when will help focus on the key issues and steps in the process, with regular review demonstrating progress.

Respondents to the London borough survey also highlighted the need for pan-London advice, which could be of use for communities and local authorities. A London Assembly report back in 2012 highlighted the skills gap and the need for the Mayor to produce best practice on neighbourhood planning in London. Although Neighbourhood Planners.London is making great strides, some key strategic advice should be put in place. In particular, respondents to our survey suggested that:

  • Guidance on the use of CIL, how spending priorities should be identified and monitored is needed

  • Some guidance on how the basic conditions apply in a two-tier planning system in London is needed

  • And, perhaps more significantly, guidance should be provided on what is an appropriate area for plan making.

Which begs the question: “what is a neighbourhood when it isn’t a Parish?”

This was one of the very first discussions posted on the neighbourhood planning group on LinkedIn back in 2011.

The challenge we have in London is that neighbourhoods are quite hard to define, and mean different things to different people, and what one person thinks might be an appropriate area will not be the same as another. Also, neighbourhood areas don’t nicely follow arbitrary borough boundaries: the ‘simplicity’ that exists in rural areas doesn’t apply in London.

Some people have tried to define London neighbourhoods. Following in the footsteps of the famous Abercrombie plan of London identifying social and function areas a more recent and fascinating update has been prepared. London's Localities shows quite clean and well defined areas. But are things really that simple?

A revealing extract is from a study called This isn’t f*$%ing Dalston! The author walked along the A10 and every two hundred meters politely asked people where he was. As you can see, the answers are varied. Stoke Newington is quite well defined, but it becomes much more complicated the further south you go along the A10, with Shoreditch, Dalston and Hoxton all starting to merge into one.

There are lots of dynamics at play here – about the identity of an area, and how people feel like they belong to a place or not. This is illustrated nicely in the Football Supporters Map of London. This quite clearly shows how areas of interest overlap, and that they pay no regard to defined boundaries. I think this begs questions as to what community is too. How do you resolve questions about appropriate areas and disputes about these?

On the LinkedIn discussion thread one contributor suggested that ‘neighbourhoods are what they are’. I think that is right and perhaps I’m worrying too much about this? Or not: why is it that some cross-boundary plan areas have been approved in London but others, which are equally valid, have not? Why is there no consistency of approach? Survey respondents suggested that pan-London advice on this would be welcomed.

Suggestions as to appropriate plan areas were put forward, including catchments around centres, or using existing planning boundaries and designations. But where areas do cross boundary, how and what does this mean for general conformity? And how do authorities come together? The Crystal Palace plan crosses five borough boundaries and includes six different wards! If it can work there it can work anywhere and is certainly worth watching as an important case study.

It is clear that the Government is strongly behind neighbourhood planning. At Prime Ministers Questions in early November neighbourhood plans were acknowledged as a ‘crucial part of the planning system’. But although is has taken off - and perhaps more so outside of London - there remains a need for some help and advice.

Neighbourhood planning is an excellent way of getting people engaged in planning. It can be a way of getting people talking, creating community cohesion, of developing social networks. It can be a way of helping to shape change – informed by the people who know the place best of all. It is a powerful and exciting opportunity to effect positive change. If some of the sticking points, with regard to areas and support packages can be ironed out, then it can really fly.

Tips and advice

So, based on studies and research I’ve undertaken, of speaking with various groups, here are my top tips:

  1. Consider whether a neighbourhood plan is right for you. It might not be: in London, with the London Plan, with Local Plans, AAPs, SPDs, Housing Zones and others, it might be that you can engage in a different way.

  2. Focus: but if it is right, then focus on what you want to achieve. Many groups start with trying to collect as much evidence as possible without stopping to ask why, and what they will do with it. There is nothing wrong with a plan having just one policy, if that addresses your issue. Indeed, it can be just as effective as a long plan covering a raft of issues.

  3. Plan the Plan: identify what you are going to do, and when, and who is going to do it, and keep people informed of progress.

  4. Consider just how effective you want the plan to be: are you simply repeating policy or really adding to this to help effect change? And if you are, make sure your policy has teeth so it can be used to deliver ambitions

  5. Review the basic conditions from day one: you don’t want to waste a lot of time on things that won’t pass examination

  6. Work in partnership – those plans with a strong relationship between the community and local authority are the most successful. But partnership working should extend beyond this – engaging with businesses, stakeholder organisations, developers and landowners can be equally crucial to the success of the plan: and it may well be that local authorities can help facilitate these discussions.

  7. Save time by using existing information and evidence

  8. Share experiences and knowledge, and proposed approaches to policies with neighbours

  9. And lastly, enjoy it, have fun, engage widely, and use your passion for the place you live in to effect positive change for everyone.

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