Neighbourhood planning has made great strides in the five years since it was brought into being via the Localism Act. But London needs to up its game in this growing area to take more advantage of the ‘richness’, knowledge and empathy of local people.
That was one of the key themes to emerge at a breakfast talk on the subject held last week at NLA and kicked off by Neighbourhood Planners.London convenor Tony Burton.
Burton said that although neighbourhood planning had gone from strength to strength there had been a variable take-up of neighbourhood planning across London, with seven ‘deserts’ including the boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Merton, Newham, Harrow and the City of London. This contrasts with the concept being the ‘norm’ nationally, with over 300 having been through a referendum process, and 270 plans in force. Turnouts have been higher than in local elections (average: 35%) and people are voting yes ‘in their droves’, said Burton. But, ‘despite rumours to the contrary, this is big time in London as well’, he added, pointing to around 100 communities exploring neighbourhood planning, around 50 of those recognised neighbourhood areas, and five plans completed. The capital does, though, represent a challenge insofar as it is complicated, new bodies must be created – as opposed to the parish council model used elsewhere – economic forces come into play more, there are more ‘tribes’, and there is often a need to work across boroughs. Local authorities are not being as supportive as they could be, said Burton, with a lack of enthusiasm politically and professionally having been a brake on the opportunity that presents itself. There is ‘tension’ around boroughs ‘hanging on’ to CIL rather than allowing neighbourhood forums to have a say in its use, as promised by politicians. London mayor Sadiq Khan, too, has been quiet on neighbourhood planning, while London Councils had been ‘a bit cold waterish, a bit half emptyish’ about it, perhaps ‘because it could be a challenge to the established power structures and regimes’.
So what could be done to accelerate it? Burton said that the London Plan needs to create more ‘space’ for neighbourhood planning and be supportive of it, the DCLG’s support programme should be continued and the challenges faced by CIL need to be better addressed.
Camden strategic planning and implementation manager Brian O’Donnell said setting up neighbourhood planning forums, writing the plan and managing the process was ‘challenging’, while plans his authority had taken through have been ‘three, four years and longer from designation’, not even from the start of the process. Neither was finishing the plan the end, but the start of influencing planning and to make a difference. ‘We’re still learning. Neighbourhood planning has an endless capacity of throwing up new and unexpected situations you haven’t come across before and no-one else has come across before.’
The conference also heard from Sara Duncan from the Church Street Neighbourhood Forum, who said it was important to focus on ‘a few things that could make a difference’. Her group came up with the idea of having the first ‘urban room’ in Westminster in an empty shop where it could stage events and allow the community to create a ‘wall of ideas’ and energise local people. Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum secretary Ian Grant said that the most important thing was leadership but that all the time and effort that goes into the process had been worth it. Finally, Countryside new business director Mike Hill said that estate regeneration was an area of great potential for neighbourhood planning in the future. ‘If you go about it in the right way you can really enthuse people to make the effort’, he said.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly