A new advertising campaign to encourage more people to control and improve their local areas launched on Monday. ‘Make a Plan, Make a Difference’, devised by M&C Saatchi for DCLG, is part of a government push to encourage more people to take advantage of neighbourhood planning powers, introduced through the Localism Act 2011. The campaign will run for a month in local newspapers, on local radio, online and on billboards, bus stops and tube station platforms. There is also a new neighbourhood planning microsite to help raise awareness and get people started.
This push is welcome and we are really pleased that DCLG has committed to raising awareness and encouraging more people to get involved in neighbourhood planning. Since the Act was introduced, five years ago, take-up has been positive. Nearly 2,000 communities across the country have embarked on the process to have a say over where new homes, shops and offices are built. However what these figures don’t show is the uneven take up of neighbourhood planning by different communities across the country. In some parts, for example, take-up is non-existent and only 11% of the areas that have embarked on the process overall are situated in more urban, deprived communities.
So why – given that there is real power on offer – is take up so patchy?
On the face of it, the reasons are clear. To create a neighbourhood plan, urban areas have to set up Neighbourhood Forums to lead the process. Rural areas, however, are generally parished, so it is parish councils that lead the process. They can also provide resources to support the often complex and lengthy process of preparing a neighbourhood plan.
There may also be a greater impetus for communities in more rural areas to want to protect the character of their towns and villages. This prompts them to get involved with neighbourhood planning in order to gain control over where new homes are built. In contrast, in the majority of deprived urban areas (notwithstanding London or other regeneration areas) land values are low. Arguably, predatory developers and housing development are simply not major issues for communities concerned with more urgent socio-economic pressures, as they are in rural communities.
Neighbourhood planning is also assumed to favour less diverse and more affluent communities because they are better equipped with skills, knowledge, confidence and time to get involved. We know from our work with Big Local that this is not the case. Often, the talent, energy, ideas and capacity within more ‘deprived’ urban communities is as rich as those assumed more prosperous areas possess. However, it is true that they can be disadvantaged by a lack of residents with the requisite professional and technical skillsets (planners, surveyors, lawyers and so on) to navigate the neighbourhood planning process.
In light of these barriers, a different, more targeted approach to neighbourhood planning may be required in more deprived urban areas – particularly where there are complex boundary issues or where the local authority and other statutory agencies are disengaged.
One option is to push the support down to an even more local level. This means investing in the capacity of community and voluntary organisations to advocate for neighbourhood planning in their communities and provide the necessary advice and support to unlock the opportunity for local people. This includes explaining what neighbourhood planning is, how residents can get involved and how it can benefit (or not!) their communities.
Renaisi is currently supporting DCLG with one such pilot. Six months ago, we were commissioned to build the capacity of community organisations in six of the most deprived 20% of wards on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2015. The aim was to enable them to raise awareness of neighbourhood planning within their communities and support them to take up the opportunity.
Working with leading neighbourhood planning practitioner Tony Burton, as well as some of our Big Local reps, we have supported a diverse group of local community organisations across the country. They include a local CVS, a community foundation and a small community-based group. Each group has been given a package of training, capacity building, support and guidance to enable them to engage with neighbourhood planning and deliver local activities to involve and inspire others within their communities. The pilot fits into DCLG’s neighbourhood planning mobilisation strategy, which aims to ensure many more communities, particularly deprived urban communities, use neighbourhood planning to take control of how their areas develop in the future.
It is too early to draw conclusions from this pilot but our experience to date has been encouraging. There is definitely an appetite among local community and voluntary organisations to get involved, albeit once properly resourced and supported to do so. Highly active, trusted by their communities and able to spread the word quickly – particularly among those who are most excluded – most of the organisations we are working with see themselves as natural catalysts for neighbourhood planning. They have a good understanding of local issues and opportunities and can broker relationships, build capacity and share resources. Importantly, they can also mobilise networks to identify local people who may be interested in setting up a Neighbourhood Forum and support them to get started.
Our evaluation report is not due until the end of June but on the current available evidence, we have six organisations still motivated and interested enough to take some steps forward. Granted, there is much more that needs to be done to realise neighbourhood planning in all six communities, but the seeds are well and truly sown.