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Community engagement in the planning process

What neighbourhood planning has taught me so far

Abbie is a planning officer in the Joint Growth Unit at Chesterfield Borough Council where she provides planning advice on capital projects and master plan areas.  She previously worked at Leeds City Council in the Policy and Plans Group with a focus on neighbourhood planning in inner-city and urban areas and planning policy.

In September we marked 50 years of Planning Aid services in England in a joint celebration between Planning Aid England and Planning Aid for London. I was delighted to be asked to speak as part of the roundtable event that marked this significant achievement during which we posed some key questions about the role of community engagement in the planning process, and any lessons that we’ve learned from Planning Aid over the last 50 years.

I spoke about my experience of the neighbourhood planning process, reflecting what we’ve learnt so far, where we are now, and questioning where we might go in the future. This included a recognition that while it is difficult to be universal when thinking about neighbourhood planning, in proactive places that have the right ‘conditions’, i.e., a proactive local authority and healthy relationships with local communities, the process can be used to deliver meaningful engagement in planning processes. From this, there are broader lessons to be learnt which could help us address some of the challenges that we are currently facing as a sector.

What has neighbourhood planning taught me so far?

That there is a great degree of appetite, sometimes in surprising places for neighbourhood planning, or at least some form of community voice in the planning process. My experience in Leeds, working with a broad range of inner-city urban neighbourhoods, has shown that participation in the planning process is driven by a range of factors, such as seeking to address hyper-local housing issues, protecting creative enclaves, participating in strategically driven regeneration initiatives such as Leeds South Bank, or to capitalise on what makes a particular neighbourhood unique for the benefit of the community. All of these factors provide a richness in the planning process at that neighbourhood scale, that would be very difficult to replicate at the local level.

In addition, neighbourhood-level consultation can have a meaningful impact on planning policy and be a positive tool to shape development. Neighbourhood planning groups (NPs), by definition, originate in the communities that they are planning for, meaning that they have the social capital that enables genuine conversations within the community. They are, although imperfect, a genuine tool and opportunity for bringing a local community voice into the statutory planning process. NPs have the capacity and often the resource to undertake this work at that scale, though it’s important to recognise that they are not the only solution.

And finally, critical to the success of neighbourhood planning, and ultimately public participation in the planning process, is being able to answer the question of “so what?” i.e., what are we planning to do? Neighbourhood plans that have focussed on delivery, whether that’s local projects, allocations, or something else, that delivery associated with the planning process, builds confidence in the system, and provides encouragement to others.

Where are we now?

At the 50 Years of Planning Aid event, there was a recognition in the room of the issues facing the sector at the moment, both in terms of resourcing (especially of local authorities) and the way in which planning has been drawn into the vitriolic nature of current public debate.

These factors combine, and in my view, make planners less likely, less willing, or less able to “get out there”, to properly engage. It is too risky and too difficult. This is not to say that the problem lies with planners, just that the conditions in which we are all operating are leading to more constrained relationships with communities, at a time when they are becoming increasingly more important.

At the same time, neighbourhood planning groups are feeling the same pressures, resources are becoming more constrained, the funding picture is uncertain beyond March 2024, trust is beginning to fray, and LPAs are less able to resource any support offer.

And while there is some genuinely excellent work taking place up and down the country to look at new ways of engaging, and the role that technology can play, it feels to me that the system is so strained, we risk doing the bare minimum.

So, with that in mind, what does the future hold?

Rather than answering this question, I posed some questions back to the audience. These focused on whether local authorities could think more creatively about engagement processes, building collaborative relationships with neighbourhood planning groups who could act as local facilitators, what opportunities Neighbourhood Priorities Statements offer as gateways to more formal planning processes, and what the role of Planning Aid should be within these opportunities.

We discussed Planning Aid’s radical roots and what help these offer for addressing contemporary planning challenges, moving away from fixed notions of what roles planners should perform, and the need to think creatively about both the practice of planning and the role of community engagement, including the need for better resourcing.

It was a lively and enriching discussion, which covered a broad range of issues including housing justice, representation, decision-making, planning reform, and the ‘state of the sector’. The overwhelming sense that I got is that there remains a passion for, and recognition of the importance of, working with communities to shape our built and natural environment. It felt like a call to action, in recognition of the achievements of Planning Aid over the last 50 years, and to reinvigorate the debate about the importance of genuine community engagement in planning, so that in another 50 years’ time, we can celebrate together again.

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