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Managing growth: The role of neighbourhoods in London’s planning process

Act Local: Empowering London’s neighbourhoods

Managing growth: The role of neighbourhoods in London’s planning process

Tony Burton explores the contribution that neighbourhood planning can make to shaping the city.

It is eight years since the first pioneering communities exercised their rights to produce neighbourhood plans. More than half of local authorities have a completed plan – and on average, nine out of 10 voters are saying “yes” when a plan is put to referendum. This strong take-up is testimony to the energy and commitment of local volunteers. Neighbourhood plans are influencing the location and design of new housing, protecting green space and heritage, revitalising high streets and bringing people together to shape the future of their area. They have been tested on appeal and in the courts, and their influence is spreading.

London’s neighbourhood planning faces some big challenges peculiar to the capital. The city has one of the most complex real estate markets in the world and a very diverse (though generally impressively cohesive) population. However, the absence of town or parish councils that would normally prepare a neighbourhood plan means neighbourhoods in London must set up a new community organisation (a neighbourhood forum) to prepare the plan instead – another barrier to entry.

Yet London is playing an important role in the growth of the neighbourhood planning movement. It is showing how communities can grapple with the complexity of development in both the West End and the suburbs. Neighbourhood plans are being prepared by areas that are less well advantaged, as well as the likes of Mayfair and Knightsbridge. They are also pioneering new planning policies on salient issues such as air pollution, overheating and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

State of neighbourhood planning in London

London is where the country’s strongest neighbourhood planning network has developed, with the establishment of volunteer-led Neighbourhood Planners.London in 2016. Its 2019 State of Neighbourhood Planning in London report found that over 120 communities have explored neighbourhood planning, with 79 neighbourhood forums designated. 13 forums have now completed plans – and the number of plans being completed is accelerating. The success of plans at referendum is clear, and Camden tops the borough league table with four completed plans.

It is, however, taking a challenging 49 months on average for forums to take a plan from designation to referendum. A growing number of forums are becoming stuck after designation, and the number of new forums coming on stream has declined from a peak of 18 to two per year. Despite successes elsewhere in the city, nine boroughs are neighbourhood planning “deserts” with no designated neighbourhood forums – Harrow, Redbridge, Newham, City of London, Merton, Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Bromley and Croydon.

Neighbourhood planning challenges

The geography of neighbourhood planning in the capital presents a complex picture. There is no clear correlation with levels of deprivation, home ownership or borough politics. Civic-minded volunteers are using neighbourhood planning to make a real difference, but too often they face unnecessary obstacles and a lack of support from established institutions. There are lessons for the Mayor of London, London Councils, central government and the councillors and officers in London’s boroughs.

There is no denying that the Mayor and most of the boroughs see neighbourhood planning as a challenge to their power and wish it away. Mayor Khan’s London Plan started life believing a “two tier” planning system operated in the capital, apparently oblivious to the growth of neighbourhood plans. A survey of borough Local Plans in 2017 by Neighbourhood Planners.London showed that only five gave serious attention to neighbourhood planning. A 2016 report showed that virtually no boroughs address the additional Community Infrastructure Levy
available to areas with a neighbourhood plan. A 2018 report concluded
that only one borough (Lambeth) was meeting legal requirements to set
out in its Statement of Community Involvement how neighbourhood
planning would be supported.

In 2018, the Commission on the Future of Localism – chaired by former Head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake – identified in some depth what the public see as “the blockages and frustrations for the expression of community power”, including “top-down decision making” and “lack of trust and risk aversion”. Neighbourhood planning is too often a case in point.

With some exceptions, neighbourhood planning volunteers report reluctance to engage with neighbourhood planning on the part of planning professionals and local councillors. In many areas there is clear evidence of minimal or misinformation being given, and in a large minority of cases there is active hostility. Planning professionals can appear threatened by lay community planners, and many councillors appear challenged by the growth of participatory democracy alongside representative democracy. This is creating strong headwinds, and in many neighbourhoods the idea of community-led planning is being snuffed out before it gets a chance to work.

Neighbourhood forums have been prevented from operating in key locations such as Elephant and Castle and Old Oak and Park Royal by boroughs amending the boundary of neighbourhood areas put forward by local communities. In other locations, boroughs have spent huge sums on developing alternative approaches which they control, such as Area Action Plans or consultant-led evidence for place policies in Local Plans. Some authorities are pushing the limits of the legal timescales within which they must make decisions on key stages of the neighbourhood planning process. Others question the representativeness of
neighbourhood forums or the legitimacy of their community engagement,
seemingly oblivious to the weaknesses in their own arrangements. Above all, volunteer neighbourhood planners often observe a “conspiracy of silence” from politicians and policymakers – with ever-greater emphasis placed on the importance of community engagement, yet a refusal to seize the potential of neighbourhood planning as a ready-made means to bring this to life.

Policy crunch: 10 benefits of neighbourhood planning

Despite these headwinds, neighbourhood planners are demonstrating their value to some of the most important planning issues of our time:

  1. Community consent – London’s accommodation of eye-watering levels of housing development without spreading outwards will require the controversial transformation of many existing residential areas. Neighbourhood planning can secure the community consent on which development ultimately depends.
  2. Small sites – National planning policy now puts great weight on the importance of small sites for housing land supply. Neighbourhood plans such as those for Highgate and St Quintin and Woodlands demonstrate how they can identify small sites missed by boroughs and bring them forward more quickly.
  3. Protecting what’s special – In the balance between accommodating development and respecting quality of life, neighbourhood plans can lead the way in protecting what matters most to local people – including local green spaces, community assets, heritage character and key views.
  4. Changing work patterns – As the demand for new and flexible working practices (such as live-work accommodation) grows, neighbourhood planning is well positioned to provide flexibility at the very local level of the individual street or small employment area. It can also respond swiftly to changing working patterns such as home working and coworking.
  5. Quality design – In response to the growing focus on quality design and architecture, neighbourhood planning is often more able to reflect community views and introduce design codes and policies that help create
    great places
  6. Estate redevelopment – With growing disquiet over plans for “estate regeneration” and expectations of residents’ ballots, neighbourhood plans can provide a way of achieving planned change with community consent.
  7. Added resources – With London boroughs saying they lack the resources to undertake the additional workloads envisaged in the London Plan – such as detailed area plans, Supplementary Planning Documents, design review, and preparation of design codes – neighbourhood forums can bring additional planning resources at low cost. Volunteers with relevant backgrounds and expertise contribute because they care deeply about their local neighbourhood and its future.
  8. Early involvement – With declining levels of community trust in local planning authorities and developers, neighbourhood planning can make a reality of public involvement at the earliest stages of new developments, bringing principles of community engagement, collaboration and co-design to life.
  9. Delivering early innovation – The flexibility and responsiveness of neighbourhood planning can support new and emergent planning policy on issues as divergent as air pollution, local homes, overheating and the Sustainable Development Goals.
  10. Addressing uncertainty – In an increasingly uncertain world, major infrastructure projects may stall or fail to attract government funding, while landowner decisions may change. In view of these and similar possibilities, there is scope to exploit the speed and responsiveness that the neighbourhood planning framework allows (when not obstructed)

Brexit and a real estate market currently on the turn in London are creating huge uncertainties. The new London Plan is a 400-page “Plan A” premised on optimistic assumptions. As well as helping to deliver this, neighbourhood plans can help to provide a bespoke “Plan B” for those parts of London where events do not unfold as hoped.

Neighbourhood planning is also beginning to raise questions about the lack of neighbourhood-level governance in London. As boroughs increasingly share services and merge functions, the clamour for a more local voice is growing. Following the successful establishment of Queen’s Park Community Council in 2012, other communities are looking at the potential of this new form of local democracy. The process for establishing a town/parish council is made easier where a neighbourhood plan has been prepared, and so it is no surprise that some of the early interest coincides with the area of neighbourhood forums in Spitalfields and Central Ealing

Funding and support

Research from Neighbourhood Planners.London shows that central government’s support programme needs to adapt to ensure the funds support it provides are adequate, effectively used and reaching all neighbourhoods. The ability for all neighbourhood forums to access additional funds and support should be restored. Mayoral funds (including those from development processes) should be available, as well as more peer-to-peer support. Neighbourhood planning needs to be championed by the Mayor, not least because it helps deliver Good Growth and community engagement. Aside from its contributions to planning policy, it should be valued just as much for how it brings communities together and inspires projects to improve the local quality of life as for the planning policies a neighbourhood plan contains. Local communities need more incentives to support them at different stages on the (often) long road to producing a neighbourhood plan. They also need greater influence over spending from the funds generated by the Community Infrastructure Levy on the development that follows.

Neighbourhood planning is now part of the mainstream. The time has come for planning professionals and local politicians in London, as elsewhere, to embrace its potential to improve planning for the future.