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Duncan Sim in the Municipal Journal

06 October 2016

Planning for Prosperity

According to Government statistics, more than 200 Neighbourhood Plans have now been approved through local referenda. A further 1,900 neighbourhood plan areas have been designated, the first step in the neighbourhood plan creation process.

This landmark is to be welcomed: neighbourhood planning has the capacity to help communities realise their aspirations for their area and create places where they are happier and healthier, in particular against the backdrop of cuts to local authority planning departments since 2010.

Yet the data reveals that designated neighbourhood plan areas are, by and large, concentrated in more prosperous parts of the country. Lower-income communities are missing out on this opportunity to shape the places where they live, and the benefits which flow from this.

On average, as revealed by ResPublica’s analysis, the number of neighbourhood plan areas is three times lower in local authorities with the highest proportion of neighbourhoods among the 10% most deprived in England than in local authorities without any such neighbourhoods.

Of the 10 local authority districts with the highest proportion of very deprived neighbourhoods, none had more than five designated neighbourhood plan areas in their district as of June 2016. Three (Knowsley, Blackpool and Burnley) had none at all.

This contrasts with local authorities such as South Hams, Chichester and Stratford-upon-Avon, all of which have more than 20 designated neighbourhood plan areas, and all of which contain no neighbourhoods among the 10% most deprived in England.

Why is this the case? It is impossible to say for certain but two possible factors seem clear.

Firstly, affluent communities are more likely to contain local activists with the right background to more easily tackle the bureaucratic aspects of the neighbourhood planning process, such as planners and lawyers – an obvious advantage. Their background will also mean they are more likely to be aware of the process’ existence in the first place.

Secondly, research by Turley has previously found that preservation and protection of existing local features is a key theme of 55% of all neighbourhood plans. It may be that this incentive to get started on neighbourhood planning is weaker in deprived areas since – as polling for ResPublica’s July 2015 report A Community Right to Beauty found – lower income households are less likely to rate their area as beautiful or feel they have good access to nature.

Yet where there is well-established community infrastructure, these barriers can be overcome. The Inner East Preston Neighbourhood Plan for example was developed, despite covering a highly deprived inner city area, as a result of the presence of a strong community organisation keen to use all available tools to ‘improve the neighbourhood’s image and its local facilities’.

Existing community groups in deprived areas should be supported to identify the potential gains to their area from neighbourhood planning and helped in navigating the process.

Local authorities in deprived areas also need greater incentives to encourage the uptake of neighbourhood planning within their boundary. This must be delivered in parallel with a cultural shift: people must see planning as an opportunity they can seize, not merely as the responsibility of the local authority.

The publication of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill offered a chance to achieve these ambitions. Yet the Bill said precious little about the importance of spreading this potentially transformative process to less well-off areas or how this might be achieved.

ResPublica would like to see a reverse in cuts to Planning Aid made since the Department for Communities and Local Government ended its formal involvement with the scheme in 2011, with the funding specifically targeted at helping deprived communities in setting up neighbourhood forums or petitioning their town or parish council to start the neighbourhood planning process.

To ensure the right incentives are in place for local authorities, they should receive a bonus on top of the £5,000 they can claim when a neighbourhood plan area is designated, a neighbourhood forum established, or a draft neighbourhood plan submitted within their boundary, when these outcomes occur in a highly deprived neighbourhood.

We have also called for university undergraduate and graduate students taking courses in public planning to be required, as part of a practical element to their course, to assist community groups in deprived areas near to their university who have expressed an interest in undertaking neighbourhood planning.

ResPublica argues deprived areas are most in need of the benefits to local prosperity, health, and wellbeing which greater control over the future of their area can deliver for local people. The continuing skew in neighbourhood planning’s uptake in favour of already affluent areas should be of considerable concern a government keen to make good on its rhetoric of social justice. Urgency should be given to implementing the ideas set out here to start to reverse this situation.

This article was originally featured in the Thursday 6th October 2016 edition of the Municipal Journal. It is also available to view on the Municipal Journal website at http://www.themj.co.uk/Planning-for-prosperity/205626