Why hasn’t neighbourhood planning taken off in Britain?

People power in Totnes. Image: Sophie Wilder/Flickr/creative commons.

It’s been 50 years since the UK made its first serious attempt to give local people greater power over the decisions made in their neighbourhoods. Yet across the nation, regeneration efforts led by councils and developers continue to draw criticism from communities that feel disregarded and disempowered: from traders in London’s railway arches, to community organisations in Bristol and renters in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Policies designed to help communities create a shared vision for their local area and shape its growth can seem ineffective.

In 1969, the UK government published the Skeffington report, with the aim of bridging the gap between town planners and the people affected by their decisions. The report made nearly 50 recommendations about how to get communities more involved in planning. Creating community forums, offering greater access to information, giving feedback on public input and improving public education about planning were all prominent suggestions.

It’s startling just how relevant the report remains today. Local planning authorities are still struggling to address issues of legitimacy, accountability and innovation in planning decisions. The Skeffington recommendations went largely unimplemented.

Cover of the 1969 Skeffington report on planning. Image: FAL/The Conversation.

Yet by the turn of the millennium, there were a number of small scale experiments giving communities the chance to research and prepare action plans for their local areas. One example was parish plans, which enabled people to establish local needs and priorities across rural England. Pilots like these were to form the basis for a new way of planning – one which was to put local people at the steering wheel.


Neighbourhood planning

In 2011, under the banner of localism and “big society”, the coalition government introduced the Localism Act, along with its flagship policy of neighbourhood planning.

Neighbourhood Planning was meant to empower communities and ensure they got the right type of development to meet their needs, by choosing where they wanted new homes, shops and offices and having their say on building new infrastructure such as roads and transport links. They were to do this by developing their own plan which, when complete, would become a statutory part of the wider planning system.

Some years on, the policy still enjoys support from the UK government. Around 2,500 communities have taken up the opportunity to develop a plan – but only around 750 had actually finished one by February 2019. What started out as a light touch addition to the system has encountered many problems. If these cannot be addressed, there is a danger that the initiative will founder and the opportunity to empower communities will be lost.

Since neighbourhood planning was introduced, myself and colleagues at the University of Reading have been researching the issues, tracking the views of the people involved and documenting the problems they have faced. There are a number of reasons why the policy has not delivered what many people, politicians and planners had hoped.

A town hall in England. Image: Gidsey/Flickr/creative commons.

For one thing, the work involved in putting a plan together has placed a significant burden on volunteers, and made it costly in terms of time and effort for people to participate. The need for technical knowledge and understanding can be great, and the work of consulting with communities, assembling evidence and preparing a tight draft plan with workable policies is a lot for volunteers to take on.

There has also been a lack of clarity, structure and consistency in the support communities get from local authorities and governments. When the policy was first introduced, the government was unwilling to tell people what to do, and local authorities were experiencing significant resource pressures.

Staff turnover at local authorities has also contributed to these difficulties, and scholars and communities have raised concerns about the usefulness and accessibility of the policy. Clearly, marginalised neighbourhoods must be better supported and encouraged to participate.

What’s more, changes to the planning system and associated rules that override neighbourhood plans have left communities feeling frustrated by the process. The system needs to be capable of handling these changes, so that they don’t disrupt the efforts local people are making to have their voices heard.

A further concern emerging from our research is that the finalised plans are not being given enough weight when planning decisions are eventually made. This is extremely concerning, as it could deter others from attempting to make their own neighbourhood plans in the future.

Thinking ahead

For local people thinking of producing a plan, there are a few things to keep in mind. In our book, Neighbourhood Planning in Practice, we suggest that communities looking to navigate neighbourhood planning now or in the future should first establish that it’s the right tool to achieve their goals. There are other planning mechanisms out there to improve the local environment – such as neighbourhood design statements, or engaging directly with the local authority over specific local issues – which may be more effective.

Those who decide to pursue neighbourhood planning should aim to develop and maintain strong relationships with partners – critically the local planning authority – by forging strong channels of communication, clarity over aims and agreement on what support can be offered. Our research indicates it’s also vital to maximise benefits by working across the local community and with other parties – not only to develop a plan, but also to maintain communications and develop other ideas and initiatives.

Creating better places is a shared endeavour, and one that takes hard work. Building partnerships between communities and town planners to share the load is critical to giving local people a greater say in their neighbourhoods. And that’s something that the Skeffington report simply didn’t stress enough 50 years ago.

The Conversation

Gavin Parker, Chair of Planning Studies, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.