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The reality of neighbourhood planning

20 July 2011

The third in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.

Mike Hyatt, Corporate Head of Strategic Planning and Jake Berriman, Head of Strategic Delivery, Shropshire Council.

Mike Hyatt _Jake Berriman _ShroShropshire is a relatively new unitary authority with a strong Tory Leader, Keith Barrow, who I met on my Presidential visit in 2009. The approach to cost savings is very tough but the drive for effective community engagement is also robust with a commitment to invest 90% of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) locally already on the table! Mike Hyatt is the senior planner in the council and Jake Berriman holds a broad innovation portfolio and is also MRTPI. I met them in the council offices in Shrewsbury.

Mike said Shropshire works as a place because of the strength of its market towns.  Many have suffered in the recession but all still have strong local communities with a commitment to getting things done locally. We have a new Council structure in Shropshire. Two Corporate Directors, for People and Place and three cross-cutting Area Directors are charged with devolving public service decisions down via local councillors to local communities, building on the market towns but also easily defined rural communities. Our approach recognises the opportunity to bring the best from the original districts closeness to their community together with the strategic impact at a countywide scale. Making this work requires not just organisational change but behavioural change, by officers, politicians and the communities they serve. The structure allows the planning process to secure an integrated approach to place making. We provide the evidence base for corporate decisions through community engagement, with the emphasis on flexibility and responding to local needs.

Jake added Planning in Shropshire is at the heart of the localism agenda. Planning is emphatically at the top table here and is seen as a vehicle to overcome barriers, definitely not the grit in the mechanism! Place planning is the mechanism for prioritising resources across the council. Plans are updated annually and evidence collection is people centred. There was an early recognition in the new Council that planning provided the potential to deliver on a neighbourhood basis with public services building on an alignment of the local Community Strategy and Core Strategy from the very  earliest stages.

The leader set the culture when he said to me I would rather be approached for forgiveness than permission.  The delegation started here, he has continued to be very supportive of the initiative, and I felt empowered by this. He wanted to see results and managed the political process for delivering Open Source Planning. The Council is really committed and it is appreciated that it takes both officers and councillors working together to bring about beneficial change at the community level

How does it work?

A key determinant is the revitalisation of the role of the councillor said Mike. The neighbourhood plan is the vehicle for a conversation between the councillor and the community. Councillors are supported to act as the broker between the Core Strategy and the communitys aspirations. This place planning approach puts the Councillor at the centre of the debate.  Members are at the heart of working with communities to plan for development housing and employment opportunities that can keep them thriving, starting with parish plans, now moving into core Strategy compliant Neighbourhood Plans.

Jake added frontline teams with high levels of delegation will operate at Market Town or other place level hubs, involving local people, in particular voluntary organisations and social enterprises, in delivering more of what we currently provide in-house.

Mike followed At the local neighbourhood level we are creating cross sector teams to address intractable issues like worklessness, drug and alcohol abuse and bringing all of the councils resources planning, housing, care, education and shortly health to bear - together with outside partners like the police and benefits agency, to deliver local solutions. Our strategic planning and research functions are being brought together to provide an integrated approach to intelligence to support targeted intervention.

It was clear that this commitment to localism in Shropshire is moving at high speed, focusing on economic growth, building resilient communities, public confidence and openness, modern infrastructure and high quality schools.

Mike continued, Future investment and community based budgeting will be aimed at community solutions that would seek to reduce service demand and costs by prevention and early intervention, behaviour change in local people and a flexible, multi skilled workforce in support.

There are however issues.

Communications, which fall within Mikes department, have a heavy workload explaining what is proposed and getting buy-in from the local community. Our Community Action teams are supporting councillors to lead informed discussion about the future of communities. The planning teams are in a really good position to influence these, seeking rationale and equitable solutions.

There are funding gaps but the planning led evidence base provides an equitable foundation for decisions on the use of scarce resources. Professionals including planners have to think how best to turn their contribution into something more cohesive and all-embracing. They have to persuade and align the work of teams in other departments such as transport and education. Here weve already captured the evidence collection role which contributes to the Place Plans leading conversations internally and externally. We have had to reconsider the role and behaviour of market towns and rural areas and how best the Council should work with Town and Parish Councils. As an example, emergency planning for clearing snow or cleaning ditches might be best and most economically delivered by local farmers.

Jake said There are issues around accountability and longevity in Neighbourhood Plans. Shropshire has seen an extraordinary change in parishes who want to look at evidence themselves and take a careful look at community needs. There are 18 places, based on our market towns and key centres where we have Place Plans in place already, adopted by the Council and focused on delivery. The communities use our services and evidence to inform their dialogue with the Council over what really matters to them Behaviour change is at the heart of the councils transformation aspirations and we see the future for community led neighbourhood plans making a significant contribution to the discussions.  Place Planning is the glue between neighbourhood and local plans

And an example?

Jake said, We have been successful in capturing Vanguard status for Neighbourhood Planning for 4 parished areas and a community forum within Shrewsbury.  These cover a range of community types and is helping us to shape a localised approach to town planning policy development that is centred on the needs and aspirations of communities of place.  Kinnerley Parish for instance is only just beginning to think how it wants to take forward neighbourhood planning but having carried out a community toolkit event there and feeding this into our Place Plan along with existing Parish Plan data we have a good understanding of the priorities, driving the community, such as: provision and planning for young people; road problems; improvements to village amenities; environmental issues; assistance for the elderly; housing and development issues.

Both officers were quite clear that professional planners have to move away from traditional technocratic processes towards more inclusive mechanisms. The planning policy lead was aimed at bringing corporate, health, social infrastructure and transport planning together, and then looking at community based budgeting for delivery of services. The incentives and taxes were all combined into a single budgetary pot.  Some interventions were more strategic including some outside the council boundary but they were expressed at local level. Place Plans make it clear where responsibility for action lay and compliance with the statutory plan was a pre-requisite in fact.  Neighbourhood plans were seen as a counterpart to strategic core planning objectives meeting in the Place Plans to secure delivery . Toolkits have been made available to support the new neighbourhood planning work delivered at evenings and weekends when the whole community was more likely to be available for discussion, allowing planning to be seen in a positive light. The private sector had been engaged individually and through a forum. They welcomed certainty from what the Council proposed. Fundamentally, the opportunity for the planners to bring public services together, act as mediators with the community and create plans that were delivered, using assets and grants in a constructive, positive, proactive manner. Mike and Jake were hugely optimistic about the future with planning not just relevant but in the lead. They had had to overcome some inertia from more traditional at times more negative planning approaches but feel that the agenda and hearts and minds have moved on in Shropshire with planners developing new skills along the way.

The conclusion I drew was that this was place planning at its most imaginative. There was scope for planners, with the local community, to establish a prosperous local economy and jointly deliver more sustainable communities through neighbourhood plans that influenced local public spending in a constructive manner and attracted private investment, through the innovative use of CIL. Mike and Jake were hugely optimistic that planning and planners would be at the centre of the new localism agenda in Shropshire. We are taking the planning argument beyond current professional boundaries and aim to be seen as part of the solution for the future role of the council at the interface with the communities it serves.

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, July 2011