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Research backs case for localism in London

Graham Pycock, Convener, Neighbourhood Planners.London

It is reassuring to know, as a volunteer neighbourhood planner, that we are part of a national success story and that we are pioneering better planning for London. In some boroughs it may not seem like this. So many planning forums have struggled in London, but the reasons for this are now well understood. Neighbourhood planning activity in London is intensely practical, but also seriously political; in that, important differences of view are argued through and resolved. Party politics has been set aside. This is bringing about a new climate and acceptance of community-based planning in the boroughs.

Looking at the bigger picture, the Localism Act 2011 has successfully devolved planning powers to over 2300 English communities. This has involved nearly six million people, with over 530 “made” neighbourhood plans legitimised by referendums. In London however, only eleven neighbourhood plans have been made to date. Slow progress in London prompts the question, is there something wrong with London, or something wrong with neighbourhood planning? Given the size and significance of the capital, it is surprising that there has been almost no research into neighbourhood planning, or indeed into governance, in London. National research does throw some light on London’s slow progress. Two large scale reports have supplied reasons to suppose that there are technical and policy weaknesses arising from the Localism Act, as well as problems stemming from London’s local government.

The Commission on the Future of Localism, sponsored by Locality, reported in February 2018 and had been chaired by Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service. It was independent, but not exactly impartial; it is reasonable to describe the eight commissioners as enthusiasts and advocates for localism. Their inclinations were underpinned by polling evidence of popular support:

Has most say in local area Should have most say in local area

National Government 25% 3%

Local Government 49% 26%

Local People 3% 57%

Commission on the Future of Localism. YouGov poll of 1,628 adults

So, by way of endorsement of the Localism Act, they state their desire for, “power to be pushed down to the local level, unleashing the creativity and expertise of communities”. Evidence was taken from 22 organisations together with online survey responses. It was found that neighbourhood planning has been impeded in various ways. In particular, the hurdles posed by the need to obtain “designation” in urban areas was highlighted. The extent of “community capacity” was identified as crucial, encompassing technical and professional skills, resources, volunteer time and networks. The Commission found inequalities in capacity between areas and uneven participation by communities.

Neighbourhood Planners.London has sponsored research and is currently reviewing the issue of local disadvantage and participation. The Commission also identified the bundle of problems posed by unsympathetic local authorities, “in too many areas public bodies remain top down and risk averse”. The attitude and culture of the local council was found to be critical to success, varying widely from strong official support to actual obstruction. The Commission insisted on the need to, “change local government behaviour and practice to enable local initiatives to thrive”. Some of us might recognise how apt this is for certain London boroughs.

Four objectives were defined for strengthening, or “reimagining” localism. These are: an integrated structure of good local governance; suitable resources and powers available to communities; stronger devolved relationships; and the development of community capacity. The culture of local government is seen to be crucial. Idealistically the commission argued that, “Deliberative, participatory, and place-based local democracy can unlock creativity, unity and community energy and harness the skills and tools for citizens to lead change in their local area”. A focus group was held in London, so some successful London planning forums had a say (typically in such research, less successful groups are unrepresented). The particular circumstances in London however were not referred to explicitly in the report, even though it is commonly understood that take-up of localism is much slower here than elsewhere. The Kerslake commission strongly championed neighbourhood planning.

The most substantial research project into localism however was carried out by the University of Reading. This was sponsored (via Locality), by what is now the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, to review neighbourhood planning in England, and resulted in the 2016 User Experience Report. This was written by Professor Parker and his colleagues at Reading. Recent legislation was informed by this research.

Subsequently, the User Experience Report was updated and supplemented by the 2018 report: Neighbourhood Planning Research 2014-2018: Synopsis and Outstanding Issues. It was found, in the User Experience Report (from informal data), that the most active region by number of groups was the South East. London, proportionately by population, had only one fifth of the number of groups of the South East region. As with the Locality Commission research, focus groups were recruited by open invitation, attracting the more successful groups. There may be, especially in London, an unknown number of non-starting or stalled neighbourhood planning groups which have, effectively remained voiceless. It was found from national survey data, that 86% of parish councils and 71% of urban forums reported, that formal consultation had gone well. Common themes emerged. Local aspirations for a neighbourhood plan typically arose because of its statutory status and the scope for control over the “type, design and location of development in their neighbourhood”. Although 92% of the groups indicated that the process was more burdensome than expected, 82% would recommend other communities to develop a plan. The report concluded that the evidence overall suggests that, “neighbourhood planning can be undertaken by most communities if effectively supported, and in particular if the relevant local authority is supportive”. There was a call for the statutory “duty to support” by local authorities to be clarified.

Subsequently, following additional legislation (the 2017 Neighbourhood Planning Act), the “Statements of Community Involvement” devised by each London borough should now supply clarification of the support available. Neighbourhood Planners.London has reviewed the current Statements of Community Involvement across all the boroughs, and concluded that, “awareness-raising and giving clarity to the public on the ‘duty of support’ have not yet been met in London”. Some boroughs have been consistently supportive such as Camden, but others in practice have a track record of resistance.

Funding for planning departments has been reduced in all boroughs, so differences in support may be attributed to policy. As well as the all-important issue of the level of town hall support, the recent research by Reading University has identified other systemic problems with neighbourhood planning and proposed ways of strengthening local groups and improving policy. Looking forward, an informed neighbourhood planning movement must address the political dimension as well as the technical issues.

An agenda for the future of neighbourhood planning in London should learn the lessons from national research, build on our own best practice, and deal with the political realities. Although localism legislation has always enjoyed all-party support in Parliament, there remain some profound ideological objections. The “policy community” in London, at local, borough and city levels, is divided. Some officers and cabinet members are enthusiastic and carry out their duty to support despite unprecedented budget cuts. But in other boroughs, deflective and withholding tactics can be identified. A sort of “stealth non-support” commonly operates. Such official opposition however is unspoken. Local government cannot be seen to defy Parliament, there is an all-party national consensus and, when tested on the ground, neighbourhood planning is actually popular with the public. So why the subversion? There are practical, policy and ideological arguments against localism.

Academic research both reflects and informs such arguments, and in particular, the social justice issue is central. The 2011 Act is permissive legislation, entitling better organised and skilled groups to seize the opportunity to plan for their own defined neighbourhoods. As the research evidence amply demonstrates from the indices, high levels of multiple deprivation can exclude communities (but not always, there are exceptions). At the same time, within the self-defined neighbourhood forum areas, activists are descriptively unrepresentative. There is a demonstrable failure of inclusion. These objections are universal in the literature and recognised everywhere on the ground. Some officials and councillors will cite this as the chief reason for their opposition, but there has been little public debate. Because the take-up of a right is demographically and economically unequal however, it does not follow that the right should be withdrawn or curtailed. Otherwise, we might withdraw the right to vote, which has always been exercised differentially.

The case to be made for neighbourhood planning is, that vastly more people have been mobilised proactively to shape their communities than under traditional council planning consultation, marked by objections and protest. The retired professionals and volunteer experts developing local plans might perhaps be praised for their altruism and public spirit, rather than deplored as “the usual suspects”. When it comes to inclusion, neighbourhood planning is an opportunity not a threat, and council support for the programme would reduce exclusion. There is a case for neighbourhood planning purely on egalitarian grounds, but localism advocates are rarely invited onto public platforms. It is absurd that a recent conference and report on “place-making” in London excluded neighbourhood planning and its supporters. This is ironic. A point has been reached where lip-service to the law, stealth non-support and dodging the debate is actually contributing to the democratic deficit in London. Ambassadors for neighbourhood planning in London need to make the political case to the powers that be, but also engage in discussion of the technical issues. There is much room for improvement in neighbourhood planning policy.

The findings of the Kerslake Commission on the Future of Localism are persuasive, but this year an authoritative and detailed agenda for further improvement has been published. Re-imagining neighbourhood governance: the future of neighbourhood planning in England builds on the research by Reading University. The gains, of bringing people together in common endeavour, mobilising volunteers and so creating “social capital” have been clearly identified. Increased community capacity, cohesion and participative democracy are among the soft benefits of localism found by the research.

The planning benefits, for example bottom-up alternatives to speculative high-density housing, are less easy to discern. A critical issue identified is the absence of explicit criteria for success. The Re-imagining paper suggests measures such as targeted support for deprived areas, council co-operation with engagement and a clear future role for forums in promoting and updating plans. There are 20 suggestions for incremental improvements, both in planning practice and in building community capacity. This research, together with the Kerslake report, might inform a positive agenda from the London Mayor to promote neighbourhood planning across London. There is much rhetoric about hyper-local engagement, more sensitive planning and community empowerment throughout the draft London Plan and in borough local plans. The statutory third tier of neighbourhood planning, available to deliver this agenda, is nevertheless played down or ignored. This is to defy parliament and repudiate the invaluable goodwill of huge numbers of London volunteers. We have actually made town planning popular! Ward councillors and council bosses alike should review the evidence, have the debate and recognise that neighbourhood planning not only offers better planning, but a healthier democracy too.

Graham Pycock is Vice Chair of Norwood Planning Assembly and a Convenor of Neighbourhood Planners.London

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