Neighbourhood Planning one year on: Current practice and the role for urban design


An edited version of this paper appears in issue 123 of ‘Urban Design‘, the Journal of the Urban Design Group.

The concept of Neighbourhood Planning was launched by the Government to much fanfare at the end of 2010.  It was to signal a brave new dawn for planning, providing a very real opportunity to deliver meaningful change at a local level.  Indeed, it was to provide an opportunity for local residents and groups to actually lead the plan-making process.  Many early commentators suggested that localism would be no more than a charter for Nimbyism.  That certainly wasn’t Government’s intention.  They saw it as a way of helping to deliver growth and development.  As Greg Clark MP put it:

“When people know that they will get proper support to cope with the demands of new development; when they have a proper say over what new homes will look like; and when they can influence where those homes go, they have reasons to say “yes” to growth”.

Now more than a year on and with the Localism Act about to be rolled out in full, what has actually happened?  In early 2011, applications were invited from CLG for a dozen or so Neighbourhood Planning Vanguards, who were to test the new approach before the Localism Bill became enacted.  The Vanguards quickly became rebranded as the Frontrunners and expanded in number from a dozen to 208 through five bidding rounds, each receiving £20,000 in funding.

With the Localism Bill becoming an Act in November 2011, and with relevant parts of that being rolled out in April this year, it is perhaps a good time to see where we are and what lessons, if any, have been learnt and can be learned from the first year of Neighbourhood Planning, and, for the purposes of this article, is there a role for urban design in the process?

IS IT A NEW DAWN?

Is Neighbourhood Planning actually the new dawn we were led to believe?  The answer has to be both yes and no.  Locally driven and responsive plans have been embedded in the plan-making system since 1947.  In the third reading of the Town & Country Planning Bill, 1947, Lord Silkin wrote:

It is not merely landowners in the area who are affected or even business interests.  Too often in the past the objections of a noisy minority have been allowed to drown the voices of other people vitally affected.  These too must have their say, and when they have had it, the provisional plan may need a good deal of alteration, but it will be all the better for that since it will reflect actual needs democratically expressed.  In the past, plans have been too much the plans of officials and not the plans of individuals, but I hope we are going to stop that.”

This aspiration has, to some degree, been taken forward by the many village plans, parish plans and community planning statements that have been prepared across the country.  These provide a good basis for the production of Neighbourhood Plans.  But perhaps the real difference between these and what is now proposed is that the Neighbourhood Plan will (if found ‘sound’) form part of the statutory development plan.  The wishes of the community, as expressed through the Neighbourhood Plan, will thus now carry very real weight.

Here though is the challenge.  For the Neighbourhood Plan to be adopted as part of the development plan, it needs to be robust and justified, it needs to have the support of the community and it needs to stand up to scrutiny at examination.  And, before you even get going, you need the support of the local authority.  So, how do you achieve all these things?  What has been happening to date?

THE FRONTRUNNERS

A Neighbourhood Plan can cover many things.  It can (and perhaps should) include a vision of what the area should be in the future, it can include general principles and planning policies, identify development and opportunity sites, establish the scale and location of growth, and establish design parameters.  It would seem there is plenty of scope for urban design here.  But what is happening in practice?

Last year, SKM Colin Buchanan surveyed those applicants[i] who had successfully received funding from the first four waves of the Government’s Frontrunner programme.  These first four waves account for 126 of the frontrunners.  We had responses from 45, spread across the country, in towns and villages, parished and unparished areas.  We received feedback on who the ‘neighbourhood planners’ are, how the plan is being funded, what challenges, or issues are being faced, and what lessons have been and can be learnt.  Some of the key messages emerging from this were:

  • The vast majority of frontrunner neighbourhood plans are being led by communities – only five of the 45 which responded were local authority led.  So, the ‘community’ is taking the opportunity forward.
  • Many have spent time early in the process establishing effective governance, including involving local politicians.  Many groups have a head start in this and are able to make use of groups and forums, their outreach, governance structures and any community-led plans previously prepared.  They are an excellent basis for taking the process forward.  The findings of the work to date also suggest that project plans and terms of reference for the Forum or Steering Group should be established at the outset.  Strong leaders should be identified and the groups leading the process should try and involve all, including business and developers.
  • Most respondents were unclear as to what the core purpose of their neighbourhood plan will be and what form it will take beyond the inclusion of general policies and principles.  This is perhaps not surprising, given that many have spent time to date setting up the administrative framework within which the forum should operate and consulting on issues and potential opportunities.  The final form and content of the plan will emerge over time.  However, this does raise issues about resourcing: a detailed masterplan for example might be visionary and engaging, but may also involve more technical and professional inputs and, importantly, costs.
  • Conversely nearly all were absolutely clear what their plan will not include.  More than 60% of the respondents said their plan would not include information on the mix and quantum of development for the area.
  • There is a huge variety of approaches being followed by the frontrunners and this should please ministers – but it remains unclear what some plans will actually deliver.
  • Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenges are time and resources for the groups preparing the plans.  Lack of knowledge and understanding of the planning system was also cited as an obstacle.  Most of those who responded said that communities lack resources and expertise.  The question here is how local authorities will provide support.  The Neighbourhood Plan process requires commitment, time and resources.
  • The majority of respondents see the process from commencement to submission for examination taking at least 18 months.  Given experience of the LDF system, how many communities will have the stamina for an 18 month neighbourhood plan process?  Add in the examination process and the referendum and this could be longer.  How many will make it to the finish line?
  • Funding is generally being spread between officer support and passing directly to the Parish or Neighbourhood Forum.  Some earmarked the funding for document production, the examination and referendum.  Funding is thus being spread thinly and there are concerns as to how the overall process will be funded.  Local authorities should identify and provide sufficient resources to help the process.

These are all worthy of in-depth debate and discussion in their own right.  It would appear that most have spent time to date establishing the appropriate framework for developing the Plan, i.e.: the governance structures, roles, responsibilities and relationships with the local authority.  This is all well and good, but it does mean that many of those responding to our survey have spent time on that rather than on the plan itself.  This could in part be a reflection of the guidance, or lack thereof, from CLG on how a Neighbourhood Plan should be prepared and what should be in it.  It does also mean that the actual time taken for production of the plan could be quite long.  Experience of preparing Core Strategies and LDF documents would suggest that a quicker process is needed, particularly if the interest of unpaid members of the community, who are ultimately responsible for the Plan, is to be maintained.  If interest is to be maintained, can a design based Plan prove to be a successful route to take?  Although many of the respondents to the survey suggested their plan would not include a masterplan or design guidance, nearly all acknowledged that it is the design aspects that can excite and engage, and, importantly, help communicate issues and opportunities.  So, is there a role for the designer?

IS THERE A ROLE FOR THE URBAN DESIGNER?

Although most respondents to our survey suggested that their Neighbourhood Plan will not comprise a masterplan nor include any design guidance, they don’t actually need to.  It may well be that the Core Strategy or Local Plan for that area provides sufficient detail on these matters and, if not addressed in the Neighbourhood Plan, they will continue to take precedence.  There are though some (more limited) Neighbourhood Plans that are seeking to provide design guidance and masterplans, and where this is the case, respondents to our survey indicated a real need for skills and advice to assist in this.  This suggests the involvement of the urban designer will be down to the nature and content of the plan.  I don’t think it is quite that simple.

In some Neighbourhood Plans, for example, the future of the High Street or local centre is the focus of the Plan.  On one level this might look at the type and mix of activities present.  Some Plans are for example focussing on the preponderance of fast-food outlets and betting shops.  But, dig a little deeper, and issues of grain, scale, adaptability and public realm quality start coming to the fore.

These are issues that might not be fully understood but which are important principles for the making of good places.  They are issues that can be drawn out and explored through the design process.

Indeed, it is the design element, and involvement in this, that often excites people more than any other part of the plan making process, bringing communities together, helping to create a sense of ownership, transparency and ownership over the plan.  It is the design process that can help visually communicate issues and opportunities, help lay public understand, be excited and engaged.  So why then, does experience from the Frontrunners suggest that those Plans coming forward might not include much by the way of design?  It might be due to a lack of skills or understanding, or it might just be that the Neighbourhood Planners haven’t got that far yet.

A recent London Assembly report[ii] however highlighted what it terms the ‘capacity gap’ in neighbourhood planning.  It highlights the often bureaucratic and multi-layered planning process and technical knowledge needed to navigate this, the lack of mutual trust that often exists between communities and officers, the lack of skills that often exist within the profession to facilitate and engage with communities.  But going further than this, it is perhaps fair to say that it is not just an understanding of the planning process that is lacking, but also the role and function of urban design.  And this might be why few of the Frontrunners are embedding design into their Plan.

Some places have though been fortunate in that they benefit from having a pool of professional skills and resources residing in their Neighbourhoods and who are contributing to the Plan, helping address the skills deficit.  The Chatsworth Road Neighbourhood Plan in London is a good case in point.  This is perhaps the ‘frontrunner ahead of the frontrunners’.  It has no central Government funding but has made great strides, drawing upon skills residing within the plan area but also making full use of social media and other engagement techniques to involve as many as possible.

Here, a set of propositions and over-arching aspirations have been used as a way of exploring issues and opportunities.  These use simple and easily understood concepts to introduce planning and design principles and help people think differently about a place.  So, those that don’t really understanding urban design can, through this approach, get a real feel for good place making principles.  If we take the example from Chatsworth Road of ‘our neighbourhood will embrace a diverse range of people and uses’, this, in urban design terms, can lead to considerations about the scale, footprint, flexibility and adaptability of buildings.  ‘Our neighbourhood will be easy and safe to get around’ leads to considerations about legibility, active building frontages, mix of uses, public realm and the balance between vehicular and pedestrian movement.

The challenge here is that some of these considerations lead to long term solutions and these might not necessarily tie up with community aspirations which, given the potentially short life span of a forum (which might only exist for five years), may focus on short term change and quick wins.  The professional can help here: although it is important to develop locally specific change that is deliverable in the short term, an understanding of the bigger picture and longer term thinking is important.  Here the professional can bring the macro and micro scale thinking.

Euan Mills, who is leading the Chatsworth Road plan, espouses the concept of ‘design thinking’.  Not necessarily a linear approach, it allows problems to be framed, the right questions to be asked, more ideas to be created, and then the best solutions selected.  It removes the making of judgements from the early stages, so encourages a greater degree of involvement by all.

Elsewhere, storytelling is being considered as a simple yet interesting and engaging way to present the challenges and future opportunities for an area.  (Design Council) Cabe has been promoting this approach to the production of LDF documents for some time[iii].  The urban designer has a big role to play here.  Well illustrated plans, strong on visual communication, will help understand why local character and identity is important, understand spatial implications of change, provide clarity and the means to understand what is proposed or should take place and why.

There clearly is a role for the urban designer, but that role might need to change[iv] in response to localism and neighbourhood planning, with the traditional role of the planner / urban designer been redefined, from one of planning and managing change to one of facilitation and communication.  It requires much more by way of engagement, mediation, assistance and even education.

But perhaps with any of these things, the role and involvement of the urban designer will all depend on the availability of funding.  In the current climate, with funding limited or even non-existent, Neighbourhood Planning perhaps provides scope for built environment professionals to make their contribution to the big society….

 


[i] Our survey was sent to the local authorities where neighbourhood plans have been funded through the frontrunner programme.  Although they may not actually be leading the process, they were the qualifying body and recipient of Government money.

[ii] London Assembly, February 2012, Beyond Consultation: The role of neighbourhood plans in supporting local involvement in planning

[iii] Cabe, 2009, Planning for Places: Delivering Good Design through Core Strategies

[iv] SKM Colin Buchanan, January 2011, The Challenges Ahead: How should the planning profession respond?

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