Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Neighbourhoods and communities: 'Locals' in the National Planning Policy Framework

Neighbourhoods and communities feature strongly in the National Planning Policy Framework. As part of the core planning principles (page 5), plan-making and decision-taking should:

‘take account of the different roles and character of different areas, promoting the vitality of our main urban areas, protecting the Green Belts around them, recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside and supporting thriving rural communities within it:’

Town centres come in for particular discussion forming a whole section (paragraphs 23-27) concerned with improving their vitality. Likewise, section 8 on ‘Promoting healthy communities’ reads as an important opportunity for communities and neighbourhoods to engage in developing secure and accessible places. The continued emphasis on local authorities to engage with communities in the planning process via the Community Right to Build Order right at the start of the process also sounds extremely positive.

There are two key questions that need to be asked about this move towards ‘localism’. Who are the neighbourhoods and communities and how do they actually achieve any influence? The first question is always a tricky one – what are communities and how do you recognise them or more importantly for planning how can they become officially recognised? Are communities and place the same? Does the community need to form about a specific issue or theme? Does the community need to be ‘local’ and match the same spatial extent as parish or local authority boundaries? The continued use of the terms ‘neighbourhood and communities’ with local authorities tends to suggest that the framework see communities as spatially limited and defined and coinciding, luckily, with the planning areas of the local authorities. Similarly, the framework seems to imply that communities are relatively small (no size is given) as they will discuss ‘local’ issues with the planners. This issue of scale is vital and could be a sticking point in planning. How many individuals do you need to have a viable community that the planners will listen to? Do you all have to live in the same location as if concern for a specific habitat needs to be limited to people that live in a specific area? Henry Hemming in his recent book ‘Together’ makes the point that many modern communities are virtual or extra-local or both. How do these fit into the planning process?

Even assuming that the ‘community’ can be identified and its representatives selected rather than just being people with the time and resources to be active on local issues (not that I am denigrating those that are as every issue needs dedicated individuals to lead it), how can they influence planning policy? This is dealt with in the ‘Plan-making’ section of the framework. Paragraph 155 calls for ‘early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and business. The section on neighbourhood plans begins at paragraph 183 and by paragraph 184 makes it clear that:

the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area. Neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan…Neighbourhood plans should reflect these policies and neighbourhoods should positively plan to support them. Neighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies’.

Now I am happy to be corrected but this implies to me that neighbourhoods and communities can not alter anything that contradicts the Local Plan and the interest of the wider local area (whatever that means). Anything locals propose has to fit into these wider strategic plans. Not sure where that leaves localism?

Henry Hemming' book Together

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