NEIGHBOURHOOD planning might be counted a success in terms of the number of communities now involved, though it can still be viewed as burdensome and challenging, finds Brian Wilson.
Locality, the organisation which manages government grants for neighbourhood planning groups, has published a report by Professor Gavin Parker and his team at Reading University.
It will soon be three years since government regulations made it possible to write a statutory neighbourhood plan (or neighbourhood development plan, to use the full terminology). According to latest government figures, some 1,400 communities across England have either started on or have undertaken neighbourhood planning work. That said, many of these will be in their early stages. There are 52 where Plans have passed a referendum and 38 where the process is wholly completed.
Writing recently in Planning magazine, Professor Parker described it thus: "NP is in principle a positive advance ... [but] the reality is that a far more modest set of outcomes have emerged so far and more slowly than the government expected". He is, nonetheless, of the view that this is a base from which to learn and grow the initiative, and that it must be given time to evolve. This is surely as true for local planning authorities as it is for neighbourhood planning groups, since it remains new territory for many of them too.
Some 70 of the 120 groups contacted were in parished areas and most of these were in rural locations. The sample was deliberately skewed towards those where neighbourhood planning work was at a fairly advanced stage and a consultation draft of the Plan had at least been produced. Almost half of these had been engaged on the process for two years or longer. In many cases, it had been something of a stop-start process, perhaps inevitably given that it depends so heavily upon volunteer effort.
Most of these communities had become involved in order to have a greater say in planning and development decisions, with the key motivations being to reinvigorate their local area and to protect its desirable characteristics. The statutory clout of Neighbourhood Plans makes them an attractive proposition relative to other means of engaging with the planning system.
One very positive finding was that 90% of the groups felt the process had gone 'well' or at least 'OK'. Most had been able to overcome issues they encountered, often with the aid of a consultant or the local planning authority or both.
The majority did, however, perceive the process as burdensome, whilst typically also recognising that this may be proportionate given the Plan's statutory status. Feedback indicates that neighbourhood planning is seen as having merit whilst nevertheless being challenging.
When asked what might be done to make neighbourhood planning more attractive to communities around half felt a better explanation of the process was needed and almost as many suggested increasing the availability of face-to-face advice. There is a desire to see the Plan making process speeded up, although many groups noted that it takes time to build relationships, build momentum and build support within a community. It would appear that time is needed for community engagement aspects of the process just as much as it is to negotiate stages in the planning system.
The evidence from this research suggests that communities can generally find their way through the neighbourhood planning process as long as they are effectively supported. Help from the local planning authority is an important ingredient and more than four in five groups felt they had been supported by their local planning authority. Having a named liaison officer seems popular with groups.
Around two thirds of the groups had used a consultant to assist them. This input was seen as most helpful at the more technical stages of the process, such as policy writing and environmental assessment. A desire to improve project planning is mentioned in the report and it may be that input can also help ensure neighbourhood plan groups set out with a clear understanding of the process, including what is needed to pass the examination stage.
Professor Parker ends his magazine article by wondering if there are lessons here for the Local Plan production process, not least in terms of how communities are engaged. He notes "dissatisfaction with local planning" and a need to "assist in the development of public understanding of planning ..." There is certainly a good deal of truth in that.