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Making localism work for planning

07 June 2011

The first in a series of interviews with leading planners to demonstrate effective planning and share best practice

Dr. David Evans, Director of Planning and Environment, West Dorset and Weymouth and Portland District Councils.

David EvansDavid Evans has been head of planning at West Dorset for over a decade and now includes community planning amongst his responsibilities which have also just been extended to include the adjoining district of Weymouth and Portland. Hes a planners planner I can remember him in sandals as an avid train spotter in Hampshire in the 70s - but he is also one of those planners driven by design as evidenced by his Diploma and PhD in Urban Design at Oxford Brookes subsequent to becoming MRTPI. I came across David for the first time in 30 years when he gave a conference presentation about effective Localism which impressed me hugely.

I met David in his office in Dorchester, an office with prints of French Bastide Towns on the wall and after reminiscing about our earlier work experiences asked David about his approach to Localism; what makes it work and what is the first stage in engaging the local community? You need to get the community to first articulate what is special about their area, then what issues are important, to get them talking and build up trust. If you apply the lessons of Prof. Barry Needhams article Concrete problems, not abstract goals you can get people to engage and then begin to address the difficult problems like affordable housing, climate change and waste disposal.

In response to a question on how to be sure that all members of a community were engaged he used the example of Abbotsbury where the initial engagement through community planning  led to local mums pulling together to identify then raise funds for a new play area. The process accessed people who would not normally be interested in community planning and allowed the council to support the delivery of a much needed facility, leading to mutual trust from which other issues could be addressed.

I pressed David on whether there was evidence that the process allowed more difficult issues to be considered and he gave the example of a Development Brief for part of Poundbury where the process delivered an agreed policy within one year and considered the controversial location of a household recycling centre. We didnt secure final approval of the plant but the site is there, fully accessed, which the County Council will be able to consider in due course.

David also cited the opportunities for engagement through regular community surveys. We use these regularly using Oxford Brookes again, supported by externally facilitated meetings and have a 60+% response from all residents, not just the vested interests and recently retired, but other members of the community who now believe that their views will be listened to and addressed.

David has advised his local MP Oliver Letwin and Greg Clarke on the barriers, hurdles and opportunities for neighbourhood planning and through his links with the Prince of Wales on Poundbury, the essential need for design guidance but I pressed him on the thorny issue of resources. We are very fortunate here in that we are a relatively wealthy council where the political benefits of community planning have been established for some time. As planners we always offer support rather than leadership of the community, always respond to political issues raised by councillors quickly and as a result have their trust.

But what about resources David? Well I have 30 planners of whom 25 are MRTPI (with the fee paid by the Council); we have a small team of non planning community development officers who front the community engagement and response process. They have backgrounds ranging from architectural Historian to Sociologist. We also have landscape architects, an ex house building surveyor for Sec 106 and now CIL negotiations, and they all support our usual DM, LDF, Trees, Enforcement and Conservation work.

And the cuts? Well now we have combined resources with Weymouth and Portland, there is scope to reduce back office and senior management resources and we are in negotiations now to achieve savings.

I then asked David what he looked for in a planner who would deliver effective localism. They must be visionary; have the intellectual capacity to grasp difficult issues; have an attitude and an ability to work with the public, individually and collectively; sieze opportunities to change places and demonstrate powers of persuasion and influence to co-ordinate all the various parties. Mediation skills are a pre-requisite of a good planner. We once had difficulty in attracting staff so now run a trainee scheme for 2 to 3 part time undergraduates, again at Oxford Brookes which we have managed to sustain despite the cuts.

I enquired as to whether having responsibilities for more than just planning was a help in delivering planning through localism and whether the need to co-ordinate others inside and outside the council featured strongly in delivering successful outcomes. I regret that I am the only chartered planner on the senior management Team in all of the districts in Dorset. I benefit from having a CEO who values planning at the centre of the councils activities, who doesnt feel threatened by the coordinating role of planning whilst allowing individual public services to be operated according to their policies. We all get on really well and work for each other in close co-operation with councillors. In order to be effective its down to people and personal relationships. I work really hard with organisations like the Highways Agency, PCT, Environment Agency and Natural England and our localism approach is a very good mechanism for helping them deliver their services in a community engaged manner. Having control of more services than planning also allows me to demonstrate cross professional working to mutual benefit

Returning to Spatial Planning, I asked David what he thought of the current LDF process. Disastrous!  Far too much evidence of dubious quality required; long impenetrable documents where technocrats, developers and articulate objectors spend days over detailed and often irrelevant data to no avail. How can a plan be relevant when it takes 5 years to complete? The world will have changed, residents and their views will have changed. We have to create robust documents that present the complex issues of planning in a manner that is more accessible and relevant to all. There is a need for a strategic spatial document that gives clarity about future intentions but you wont secure community ownership unless they are central in the preparation of the vision. Neighbourhood Plans will be expensive to prepare but are part of the process of delivering a successful local plan. Local plans must be prepared more quickly alongside the community and with their blessing but provide flexibility to change emphasis or respond to a particular opportunity and continually engage the public in the plan preparation and updating process. We are talking to DCLG about a simpler Local Plan and hope to be in a position to demonstrate a new approach shortly.

Finally I asked David how planners should respond to localism. Embrace it. Culture change in much of the profession will be essential but it is the route to good planning and also improving the status of planners and planning. Localism provides the opportunity to demonstrate vision not just with the communitys blessing but with their enthusiastic engagement and partnership in delivering results. The local plan process is not planners taking control but playing a coordinating role in the delivery of public services and localism allows the plan making process to provide the framework for community engagement.

And do all authorities, urban and rural, have the same opportunity to embrace localism? I concede that not all councils have the resources or political and officer commitment to planning. However it is there for the taking and localism provides a special opportunity to increase the value and status of planning and planners.

I came away with the clear view that if you are good at your job then you are more likely to attract and sustain resources, even in these difficult times.

Martin Willey Past President