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Are we on the verge of Localism #2?

Localism is now over ten years old and by a strange coincidence, the Minister responsible for introducing Localism, Greg Clark, briefly returned as Secretary of State for Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (although he has since been replaced by Simon Clarke).

Back in 2011, Localism was fêted as the necessary impetus for a new era of community empowerment, with the potential to strengthen local economies, rebalance economic growth and create locally-led solutions through partnership and collaboration. Localism established a set of Community Rights which gave communities a framework in which to protect and own valued local assets, influence local planning and development, and run local services.

But Localism did not take off as was hoped: in 2017 the Commission on the Future of Localism found that that 80 per cent of people felt they had little or no control over decisions that affect their country and 71 per cent felt they have little or no control over local decisions. Furthermore, 68 per cent said that community spirit, rather than being empowered by Localism, had declined and asked about the specific vehicles of Localism, 79% said that they were unaware of the Community Rights that the Act had introduced.

If the sentiment of Localism remains today it is undoubtedly in the form of neighbourhood planning. There are over 3,000 Neighbourhood Plans currently underway in England and 1,405 have already been adopted.

And the way in which local residents have engaged in neighbourhood planning has demonstrated a substantial appetite for grass-roots involvement in planning, which, it has been argued, has led to the range of new initiatives, including design codes, Street Votes etc which are present in the current Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. How that Bill will evolve as it progresses through Parliament is impossible to predict, given a new Prime Minister to be announced imminently and the likelihood that this likely to result in yet another change at the top of DLUHC, possibly even a general election.

It is clear however, that the principle of strengthening neighbourhood planning, is a fundamental aspect to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is seeking to put greater emphasis on allowing local voices to be heard in the planning process.

However if this is to be successful, neighbourhood planning cannot remain the NIMBY charter that is has been described as: due to the presumption in favour of sustainable development, a neighbourhood plan will fail if constructed solely to defeat development.

The Bill includes proposals to create a Neighbourhood Priority Statement, a planning tool which will set out a community’s preferences on development in their local area. Councils will be required to consider such statements when preparing their local plan. Neighbourhood Priority Statements could provide a better means of engaging with communities, and could help to address the significant issues of accessibility, complexity and time taken to create a neighbourhood plan. They could also address the common problem of timing: in circumstances in which Local Plans and neighbourhood plans are completed years apart, they will invariably respond to a different set of circumstances and as such they will lack consistency. But the Neighbourhood Priority Statement could be updated at various points in the process of the Local Plan’s preparation, giving specific neighbourhoods a more meaningful input.

I have worked on development schemes which have had significant influence from neighbourhood forums in the shape of neighbourhood plans, which have had both a positive and negative impact.  It is important that neighbourhood plans benefit from local dialogue, which can create a scheme better suited to its specific location, but I have broader concerns about how the proposed strengthening of neighbourhood planning sits within the levelling up agenda. Currently the areas most likely to have a neighbourhood plan are communities with a professional and prosperous demographic, much less so the deprived inner-city communities with more transient populations. This is unlikely to change without a significant investment in community development over many years. The detrimental impact of giving strengthened powers to the communities better able to put effective neighbourhood plans, therefore, has the potential to exacerbate the divide - resulting in the opposite to levelling up. Indeed, the complexities and time commitments of undertaking the neighbourhood planning process already acts as a barrier to a wide range of key demographics within communities from getting involved with neighbourhood planning.

Debate surrounding the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill should also focus on whether the powers of neighbourhood planning need to be strengthened. Undoubtedly neighbourhood forums would be more empowered to create a neighbourhood plan if they were reassured that it would carry more weight than currently – unfortunately there are many examples of neighbourhood plans being put in place and supported but having little influence on outcomes. But strengthening is relative and needs to be within the context of supporting sustainable development and growth. The Levelling Up White Paper promises to strengthen neighbourhood planning in addition to Local Plans and spatial development strategies proposed by mayors or combined authorities, while also strengthening planning at a national level by moving specific policies from Local Plans to a suite of policies to be defined at Government level. Can every element of planning be strengthened or does strengthening one function come at the cost of reducing the power of another? Furthermore, while technically, neighbourhood planning and Local Plans both carry weight in the planning process, how this works in reality depends on timing: if the neighbourhood planning is out of step with the Plan, its influence is weakened which further aggravates fractured relationships between local communities, local authorities, and developers trying to bring development forward.

In principle, I think neighbourhood planning can be an effective tool to involve local voices in the planning process. But the real opportunity when finalising the legislation is not simply to strengthen existing policy but to understand where the gaps lie and to find the means of addressing this serious issue.

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