Researching London's neighbourhood planning experience
Francesca Bragaglia, Turin Polytechnic
This blog will briefly present my PhD research on social innovation at Politecnico di Torino (Italy) and with the co-supervision of Professor Gavin Parker (University of Reading). My thesis's main argument focuses on how grassroots social innovation can be promoted (or hindered) through co-produced urban governance tools. To do so, I observe the Conseils Citoyens (Citizens Councils) in Paris and the Neighbourhood Plans in London.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 emergency did not allow me to start my visiting period at the University of Reading and start my field research in London. Researching a foreign country from afar is not easy, so I first sought to understand neighbourhood planning better. For this reason, I made a census of the current state of Neighbourhood Forums in London. The sources from which I drew to complete the census are the latest reports made by Neighbourhood Planners.London and individual Neighbourhood Forums' websites. I would be happy to receive your feedback if there are any data to change or update (you can check the information using this link and at the bottom of the same file you can freely enter your comments that will be automatically saved on the shared drive).
Between June and July 2020, I also sent the Neighbourhood Planners.London network a short questionnaire and a sample of 18 neighbourhood planners - whom I greatly thank again - participated in the questionnaire. Moreover, I’m currently conducting a series of online interviews with some neighbourhood planning groups. Below are some very first reflections from my research.
Who are the Neighbourhood Planners?
From the data collected, it emerges that neighbourhood planners in London are largely made up of middle-aged or older people motivated by improving their local areas and enhancing community participation in the transformation of their local areas. Of the sample of people who completed the survey, none have a professional background in the area of planning. However, in almost all cases they are people who before becoming members of a neighbourhood forum were already active citizens in their communities (e.g. volunteers in charity trusts, civic societies). Therefore, they are, on average, people who were already involved in the dynamics of associationism.
The mobilization of young people seems to be complicated. In the sample of people analyzed, there is no one in the age range 19-25, nor 26-35. This could be in part due to the critical time commitment that the process of neighbourhood planning requires.
Neighbourhood Planning process: a long and winding road?
Developing a neighbourhood plan is often a very long process, taking a lot of energy and several years to complete. The questionnaire's answers indicate that the process can last up to 4/5 years (as already pointed out in some Neighbourhood Planners.London reports). Also, the volunteers involved claim to devote a large number of hours per week to neighbourhood planning activities. Several respondents claim to commit up to 40 hours per week, a real ‘full-time voluntary work’(see also the works of Parker et al. about volunteering in neighbourhood planning), as stated by one of the respondents to the questionnaire. Others report much lower levels of involvement (1-6 hours per week). This difference may depend on the role held within the Forum, and the fact that those who work can only allocate a limited number of hours to neighbourhood planning activities.
Some neighbourhood planners point out that engagement goes in waves and depends essentially on the neighbourhood plan stage. However, one aspect that the entire sample of neighbourhood planners involved in the survey emphasizes is that the commitment required to carry out neighbourhood planning is greater than they thought.
In addition to the significant human and time resources involved in neighbourhood planning, many neighbourhood planners point out that more monetary resources available to communities embarking on this process would also be needed. Some of the aspects of creating a neighbourhood plan are very complex, and many volunteers point out that technical expertise would be very helpful. More economic resources would make it easier to tackle the more bureaucratic steps by hiring experienced planning consultants.
An additional aspect emphasized by neighbourhood planners that greatly affect the process’s timing and complexity is local government support. Despite the 'duty to support' that local authorities have towards neighbourhood planning, some authorities are hostile and uncooperative. This can be a political issue (lack of political will to support neighbourhood planning) and/or technical one (some volunteers report difficult relationships with senior officers/professional planners). The need for local authorities to fully embrace community engagement in neighbourhood planning is an essential condition for the success of the process. Where this happens, the process is faster and less frustrating. While in other cases, Neighbourhood Planners’ perception is that they are only ‘tolerated’ by the local administration, but not supported with concrete administrative help.
Nearly all of the Neighbourhood Forums involved in the survey reported using other tools, formal or informal, for their community goals, but neighbourhood planning remains the most effective. Despite the difficulties highlighted all of the individuals who completed the questionnaire state that the neighbourhood planning process has led to a bit of empowerment (although 4 out of 18 emphasize that it has been less than they initially expected).
Which perspectives to improve the process?
Aspects that neighbourhood planners emphasize to improve the process include:
More resources devoted to neighbourhood planning and dedicated technical support
More collaboration and coordination with local authorities
The provision of a location for meetings
Easier access to information and local statistics (in this sense, the planning system's reform might respond to this aspect).
If you would like to know more about my PhD research, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org