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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.