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Can you trust neighbourhood forums?

Authored by Chris Mountain

As part of my recent Town Planning course, I wrote a dissertation on Neighbourhood Forums. I looked at how Forums are run, what areas they represent and what skills their members have.

I chair a Forum; I’ve met other Forum representatives and I think that Forums are a good thing. But when I did my background reading, I was surprised to find out that many academics don’t seem to share my enthusiasm.

I was worried that I’d find that Forums would all be really badly run, with no transparency or democratic processes, and all be in the least deprived areas. Thankfully, my findings were pretty positive. I looked at information about skills and local deprivation provided by all the Forums that have applied for Government support since 2015 (177 groups.) I also looked at the governance arrangements of 95 of those groups (across 84 English Council areas) to assess their approaches to inclusivity, accountability, transparency and democracy. I approached this from the perspective of a potential new Forum member or other interested person by basing my study on information available on Forum websites. So do bear in mind that some groups might be amazingly well run, but just have a poor website; or vice versa. I hope my findings and recommendations will be of interest and use to existing and new Forums and anyone else interested in the past, present and future of neighbourhood planning.

Forum Governance

My analysis suggests that of the 95 Forums surveyed, 54% had limited governance arrangements, 32% had good governance arrangements with only 14% having poor governance arrangements. While the overall picture was encouraging, but I was a bit concerned by the following findings:

  • 42 Forums gave no indication of who leads/chairs the group

  • 37 Forums had no clear joining instructions

  • 40 Forums lacked evidence of democratic structures within the Forum. There is a direct link here between the 48 Forums that did not make their constitution available online.

Again, this may be more to do with not having a very good website, but Forums need to recruit and retain members, so information on joining is really important. Leadership information is a vital transparency issue, and constitutions should be publicly available (Forum’s can’t be formally ‘designated’ by their Council without one).

I also considered a range of Forum policies and procedures and suggested whether these were good practice or not. I’ve listed a few stand-out issues below:

  • Charging for Forum membership (bad)

  • Membership termination clauses (good)

  • Electronic voting (good)

  • Youth membership (good)

  • Making residents automatic Forum members (bad)

Having considered all the survey findings, with many of these Forums approaching a decision on whether to apply for re-designation (which they’re required to do every five years), I recommended that Forums should consider prioritising:

  • being more open about governance arrangements to be more transparent

  • removal of any mandatory membership fees to be more inclusive

  • engagement with elected councillors to be more accountable

  • digital engagement methods to be more democratic

Levels of deprivation in neighbourhood planning areas

Perhaps the most surprising findings came from my deprivation analysis. A recurring theme in discussions about neighbourhood planning is that the process is often a hobby for well-off retired people and (rightly or wrongly) deprivation levels are sometimes used to show this. Across the country, there is an obvious disparity, with participation heavy skewed towards the least deprived areas. But my research shows, for (what I’m pretty sure is) the first time, the extent that Forums buck that broader trend. They have a much more even distribution for deprivation, with a significant number of Forums representing some of the most deprived communities in the country. These are areas where community engagement in traditional plan-making can be particularly important, to deliver the kind of positive change that national and local planning policies consistently aim to achieve.

The graphs below show the difference in deprivation levels for Town/Parish Council areas and Forums areas. The five categories are taken from the national Index of Multiple deprivation dataset, which ranks all (30,000+) English neighbourhoods. I think the graphs tell a really positive story about neighbourhood planning (albeit with a relatively small sample size).

Deprivation levels for Town/Parish neighbourhood planning areas

Deprivation levels for Forum neighbourhood planning areas

Any optimism about the take-up of neighbourhood planning in more deprived areas needs to be tempered somewhat by the evidence of falling numbers of Forum designations; the London drop off is documented here by Neighbourhood Planners.London.

On the subject of Neighbourhood Planners.London, many of my findings and recommendations won’t be a surprise to the Forum representatives that kindly came along to an informal peer-review session over the summer of 2019 arranged by Neighbourhood Planners.London. The feedback they gave me on my emerging work was incredibly valuable. We didn’t all agree on the best ways to run Forums, but that’s healthy, because every Forum and every area is different.


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