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Community action and planningContexts, drivers and outcomes$

Nick Gallent and Daniela Ciaffi

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781447315162

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447315162.001.0001

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Engaging neighbourhoods:

Engaging neighbourhoods:

Experiences of transactive planning with communities in England

(p.177) 10 Engaging neighbourhoods
Community action and planning

Gavin Parker

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter explores efforts to engage communities at the neighbourhood scale in thinking about local issues and agenda-setting firstly through non-statutory experimentation in the 1990s through to current experience of statutory neighbourhood planning under the localism Act (2011) in England. Drawing on Friedmann’s (1973) notion of transactive planning the essay highlights how lasting knowledge and awareness needs to be generated and sustained in order for such efforts to make a an impact on planning outcomes and the standing of planning in society.

Keywords:   community, neighbourhood, education, planning, parishes, localism

Introduction: frames, foci and fragmentation of effort

Those operating within traditional planning paradigms have struggled to capture and reconcile the range of knowledges and diversity of preferences that could inform and shape practice in policy formulation and decision-making arenas. Some may argue that any such aim for all-inclusivity can only ever be aspirational, given the complexity likely to be involved. Notwithstanding the resource limitations and the sheer number of considerations that so often constrain laudable ambitions, however, there are also attitudinal barriers and prevalent power geometries that act to shape method and policy. These factors must bear at least some of the responsibility for the opprobrium so often accompanying plans and development proposals and the ineluctable decisions provoked by such efforts to shape the environment.

A significant issue accompanying the broader imperfections of policymaking and planning systems has been the disconnect between decision-makers and those directly affected by planning policies and new development. That is to say, politicians, as well as professional planners, have struggled to reconcile or mediate individual or group interests with a wider public interest and have failed to communicate or to find satisfactory means of adjusting goals or formulating satisfactory governance arrangements – in short how to shift towards a more consensual pragmatism (Harper and Stein, 2006). This situation has impeded the development of the relations and repertoires envisaged by Healey (1998, 1531) to build ‘social networks as a resource of institutional capital through which new initiatives can be taken rapidly and legitimately…fostering the institutional capacity in territorial political communities for ongoing “place-making” activities’. The sentiment is that structures, processes and skills for more inclusive (p.178) and ‘collaborative’ planning are needed for a legitimate and effective planning to be fostered to serve a networked yet diverse society.

Thus the development of knowledge and capacity, as well as the structures and processes, conducive to collaborative planning models are claimed to be needed to transform practice, to ease conflict and ultimately to help produce better more sustainable places. Mechanisms to foster such paradigmatic and cultural change (and associated structural accommodations) have remained a feature of planning debate for a generation, and still remain in question given the buildup of attention and the serial and chronic failure to take associated challenges seriously among the planning polity. Thus consideration of community-led planning activity in England is ever more pertinent as it helps point towards potentials for a mainstream shift towards a more transactive planning1 (Friedmann, 1973) as discussed below, and is a central concern of this book: to understand the characteristics, potentials and constraints of community action and planning. This chapter, given this context, examines how planning at the neighbourhood scale has developed and more recently gained a statutory footing in England. This may be a significant step in the creation of a more collaborative planning, given it is the latest iteration of experiments in community engagement with planning issues.

While the design and operation of the planning system in England clearly structures much community action there are macro-level trajectories of socio-economic change and global political shifts that have inevitably had an impact on attitudes to planning and practices too. These have influenced some efforts at planning reform and participation. Indeed planning and decision-making in the built and natural environment is just one arena where and why governance arrangements have been reformulated or ‘modernised’. The broader forces of globalisation, economic liberalisation and communications advances that are key drivers of much change are likewise shaped by the characteristics of policies pursued by governments. This forms an uneven and disjointed dialecticism where change and accompanying discourses of modernisation, competition, efficiency and accountability also act over time to shape the structures and processes of governance that are adopted and contested. Such competing discourses mean that reforming planning and associated governance to achieve collaborative forms of planning are discussed alongside other apparently discordant claims or priorities and produce often incongruent or unstable outcomes.

It is often also argued that individualism and an increasingly dominant neo-liberalism, along with its handmaiden consumerism, plays a part (p.179) in the disconnect between planning, planners and the public, given its intrinsic identity as a collective endeavour. Attendant attitudes and dissatisfaction with outcomes associated with planning from the citizen-consumer perspective are a feature that can easily bind a diverse population through a shared feeling of resentment towards big government, and a concomitant demand for both transparency and a more participatory approach to governance (Gyford, 1991; Parker, 1999). Expectations of governance systems in terms of process have become more sophisticated and questions of motive, means and method remain ever more relevant in the design of planning and wider governance systems, and are concerns that have found their way into theoretical models for participation too (see Glass, 1979; Forester, 1993; Lane, 2005).

In parallel to the post-war development of urban planning, a concern has grown since the 1960s not only to involve the public more effectively in planning, and latterly to encourage and support community development to build social and institutional capital and ultimately to co-construct policy for places. A twofold emphasis has emerged on ‘means and mode’ as well as ‘information, knowledge and capacity’. Similarly two strands of engagement ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ participation in planning with the latter being organised beyond formal planning systems (Innes and Booher, 2004). These efforts, together with direct (or narrower) participation in planning, reflect a recognition of the so-called democratic deficit apparent in modern planning practice and act to drive attempts to address questions of legitimacy, inclusivity and consensus-building.

In the UK this led to early efforts in encouraging direct participation and were reinforced by the exhortations of a national committee tasked to review public participation in planning (Skeffington, 1969). The seminal Skeffington report advocated a building-in of public participation in planning ‘at the formative stages of plan-making’ (see Damer and Hague, 1971; Rydin, 1999). Yet this effort to induce direct participation (through the means outlined by Dandekar and Main, Chapter 9, this volume) has tended to result in consultation or otherwise limited engagement effort that rests some way down the routinely cited ‘ladder’ of empowerment produced by Arnstein (1969) and is viewed with some scepticism as a means to influence outcomes. This situation as well as other perceived shortcomings, led to repeated attempts to reformulate planning systems, structures and process with a view to addressing perceived shortfalls in accountability, speed and inclusivity and with much rhetorical regard given towards involving citizens in planning. Yet, ongoing dissatisfaction and lack of (p.180) transparency has added to a third strand of engagement that cuts across direct and indirect types – this is a vigorous reactive participation (often presenting itself as oppositional protest) provoked and shaped by issues becoming recognised, but out of the control, or beyond the sight of local populations and is thence latterly contested. This may be read as a rational reaction to being planned for or ‘upon’ and transcends bureaucratic boundaries. Other community-based or grassroots activity is induced in an effort to genuinely co-construct policy and yet much of both modalities have been seemingly ineffective in shaping planning policies or outcomes and there is a powerful critique about why this is the case rehearsed in the literature (see, for example, Chandler, 2000; Cooke and Kothari, 2001; Brownill and Carpenter, 2007; Sager, 2009a; 2009b; Swyngedouw, 2010; Parker and Street, forthcoming).

Notwithstanding an acknowledgement of the need for the planning process to reflect different views and needs, both a reformed planning and the new community-based development activity in the UK (and its associated rhetorical support), reflects a complex set of historical and economic processes. The de-traditionalisation and diversification of society (see Chapter 1, this volume) has exacerbated tensions between professions, politicians and the public and this leaves us grasping for even basic agreement over the scope and design of planning processes, what is really meant by community and what is a legitimate concern of planning (see Ravetz, 1986). Such issues vie with concerns over representativeness, inclusivity and the degree to which any participatory efforts can truly be considered as ‘community action’. Similarly the balance or inter-penetration of power and influence of the local over the national and vice-versa, and the impact of sectional interests in planning are posed as endemic and render collaborative planning and dialogic planning spaces suspect. For Mouffe the dialogical modality required by transactive planning and this form of sub-politics is built on a misguided premise that: ‘conflicts can be pacified thanks to the “opening up” of a variety of public spheres where, through dialogue, people with very different interests will make decisions about the variety of issues that affect them’ (Mouffe, 2005, 48).

Transactive and collaborative planning with communities

There is an overall normative set of interlinked aims here that are about no less than changing the culture of planning and the capacities within populations to engage with local and strategic planning challenges. This underlies the dynamic approach required in transactive planning, as identified by John Friedmann over 40 years ago. He argued that (p.181) ‘the real solution involves a restructuring of the basic relationship between planner and client’ (1973, 172) and the types and sources of knowledge typically deployed by both parties. In Friedmann’s view one mindset is typified as abstract and informed by theory and underpinned by evidence, the other by partial and less generalisable experiential knowledge. This immediately sets up important questions recognised also by Healey (1997; 1998) that may be expressed in terms of how to find both structures and processes that accommodate and retain the strengths or benefits of both knowledge fields.

Transactive planning requires the development of interpersonal relations and knowledge into action, including a recognition that ‘society needs a heightened learning capacity’ (Friedmann, 1973, 193). Advocacy of this paradigmatic approach to the structures and processes of and for planning requires social and institutional capacity to sustain a robust dialogical planning process that transactive planning requires. This shift will also need to reflect pragmatic, incremental realities, given it is also recognised that such efforts are fraught with difficulty and imperfection (Harper and Stein, 2006; Flyvbjerg, 1998; Forester, 1993). Some critics of planning who are sympathetic to similar collaborative planning prescriptions, see that a more engaged and discursive form of politics is needed in application to planning questions. This entails the recognition and support of what Beck (1994) has termed a sub-politics, where a widening of the ‘stage of social design’ should be established to include ‘citizens, technical experts, business people, professionals and other individuals who compete with one another for the emerging power to shape politics’ (1994, 22). Power and control, knowledge and responsibility are clearly present as concerns and barriers to the kind of open dialogical or collaborative forms of planning discussed so widely in the contemporary planning literature. In such critiques lie very important warnings about the design and maintenance of dialogic spaces and the required support and capacities needed for what could be a fragile yet necessarily long-term project, as well as a determined effort to maintain the process benefits, cited by Friedmann, and others since, that build capacities and networks – often distilled into the concepts of social and institutional capital (see Rydin, Chapter 2, this volume).

Numerous scholars have further refined and called for more collaborative planning approaches since the early 1970s, also influenced by Habermasian notions of a communicative rationality, as a normative ideal that should underpin planning process – as well as drawing on the insights of Friedmann (see Sager, 2009a; 2009b; Healey, 1997; Forester, 1993; 1999; Clifford and Tewdwr-Jones, 2013). This emphasis has sparked prolonged debate over the possibilities and difficulties of (p.182) this theoretical-cum-faith position and how apparently collaborative efforts in practice have been subverted or manipulated or appear to lack normative or substantive aims (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger, 1998; Brand and Gaffikin, 2007). Questions of efficiency and effectiveness have also been called into question and how to develop required levels of social and institutional capital remain as part of concerns to find workable models. Thus in examining community-action and community-led planning there are numerous aspects that do require close critical attention.

While debates over the practical and philosophical credibility of collaborative and transactive planning have continued, there have been notable strands of community action in and related to planning taking place. Often this is where particular groups have concentrated on one-off or project based work and sometimes under a banner of ‘regeneration’ with planners acting as intermediaries and as facilitators and enabling others to become citizen-planners. Other actions may be categorised under the ‘social movements’ label (which of itself obscures varying degrees of alterity, reactivity and control-taking; see De Souza, 2006; Castells, 1983). Some participatory effort has been linked to formal planning in the UK and has recognised and sought to develop networks of common interest, while other initiatives have attempted to induce more diffuse participation – often this is little more than consultation activity. Yet more examples exist where others work with community members to develop social capital (see for example; Rydin, Chapter 2, this volume, and Rydin, 2003; Holman and Rydin, 2013; Parker and Murray, 2012). This may be instrumental but also develops awareness and understanding of issues and agendas directly relevant to planning and development.

Planning and community action

In the global north at least, attitudes towards efforts to plan from above and the assumption of acquiescence, if not agreement, of populations across whole territories on the part of the state, has been laid to siege for some time. Subsequent debates, as above, have produced a series of challenges to planning as a technical and elitist set of activities to be acted out and imposed on populations ‘in their best interest’. A strong theoretical challenge to traditional planning has developed, particularly in the US and then in the UK, as well as a critique to the collaborative models offered up in response. In parallel, an upsurge in self-organisation and efforts to plan from below have emerged and may be categorised across a spectrum of protest or reaction to (p.183) planning which is organised to challenge, to obstruct and to force change in planning decision-making, both in episodic terms, but also to press for amendments to accommodate community participation in structural terms.

Stung by academic critique and often articulate and organised protest movements from the grassroots and from elite interest groups, many governments have sought to reorganise and rethink planning – both as a means of organising action and policy, but also to use planning and planners as a convenient shield to take the blows directed by constituents and from rhetorical attacks from opposing politicians. The trend to accommodate the collaborative planning model, and a continued frustration on the part of sections of the population, have seen gradual change in planning process and structures and interesting organic community action emerging that has been shaping and challenging planning practice. This environment has provided a milieu whereby planning systems have borne serial minor adjustments dressed up as radical reform and often without any clear or coherent underpinning principles. The experience of the UK and England in particular over the past 20 years or so provides a now classic example of this (Prior, 2005) and which has acted to erode, rather than build, the development of trust and understanding that transactive and collaborative planning relies on, while simultaneously experimenting with numerous episodes of public participation, community engagement and community-led planning. Much of the value of these episodes lie in the lessons that such experiments hold for planners qua system designers to learn from, rather than examples that are likely to satisfy critics of collaborative planning, strategic planners keen to cascade the priorities of meta-governance, or active citizens keen to have a greater say over change and continuities that affect them.

Thus efforts to think about the role and potential of the community to shape and to contribute to local policy and agenda setting has occupied many academics and policymakers from across the social and policy sciences. This account looks at what is now being termed neighbourhood planning practices (here the term community-led planning is maintained to embrace the three episodes set out below) and cannot therefore be viewed as a comprehensive account of participation in planning in England, nor embrace the full range of activity intimated above. This does, however, indicate the creative tension between engaged citizens and the planning polity and features the English experience of both indirect and direct participation in planning as community action first outwith, and then as part of, formal planning systems since the 1980s.

(p.184) Three episodes of community-led planning2 in England since the 1990s

Bearing in mind the above review we now turn to the experiences of efforts to develop indirect and direct participation as part of institutional capacity-building across England. The introductory chapter has already conceptualised some of the differences across forms of community action in planning and places that activity into four drivers and their responses. This demonstrates that we should be aware of how those involved in framing and initiating engagement are actively shaping community action and how this is responded to by participants. The motives of the different parties involved are important and their aims clearly have an impact on design, process and outcome, as well as highlighting related questions of the effective prompts, the focus of concern and the scale of activity. These differ in various examples of community-led planning or community action and shape outcomes.

This review focuses in on one strain of participatory activity or community action traced through the 1980s until the present, and that has led to the current experiment with neighbourhood development planning. This latter episode involves community-led planning becoming institutionalised as part of the UK coalition government’s emphasis on ‘localism’ in England with Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs) developed as part of the reformed statutory planning system in England since 2011.

A common thread throughout the series of stages or episodes in the development of community-led planning is that the community itself is forming and shaping the priorities, but within different limits or frames. This trend has been part of a growing recognition of the potential and benefits of activities undertaken by neighbourhoods themselves, in terms of developing capacity and eliciting a better understanding of local issues and preferences as applied to planning or other related local issues and agendas (that is, the ‘means and mode’ and ‘information, knowledge and capacity’ strands). The chapter sets out three episodes of planning – all at the community level (that is, as agenda setting and policy formulation exercises rather than in relation to development proposals or contributing to plans prepared by others and largely in the period 1995–2013). As the episodes are outlined, however, we can see continuities but also different frames and purposes imposed and how these cut across the conceptualisation of community action aired in the introductory chapter.

(p.185) Episode 1: 1995–2001. Evidence gathering as community action in England

This first episode of activity may be characterised as both organic and indirect and demonstrated early characteristics of community-led planning. This saw communities beginning to offer up additional and heterodoxical views and ideas to shape the local policy agenda – primarily in rural England. The work in this phase saw efforts to build on a disjointed and fragmentary self-help approach that had built up during the 1980s, through initiatives such as village and parish3 appraisals (Moseley, 1997) and which were of themselves influenced by the Local Agenda 21 (LA21) (see Owen, 2002). This work was notably found in those rural areas where planning practice had largely been limited to rather blanket policies of planning restraint and assumed little or no development, unless related to agriculture.

The gap in formal planning in many rural areas was an instrumental and political convenience based both on limited planning resource and lack of political appetite at national and local level to fully embrace rural economic development and social questions such as access to services, rural employment and affordable housing. It is only in the past 20 years that such concerns have been given more prominence and mirror a more integrated analysis of the needs of rural England in the so-called post-productivist era (see Curry and Moseley, 2011). This situation was also a triumph of the environmental lobby and one which suited a significant proportion of the rural population for a time (see Woods, 2005; Sheail, 2002). Thus in such circumstances some community leaders saw a need for more fine grained understanding of community needs and aspirations than that offered by formal planning and a rather unresponsive representative democracy. Yet while research done in this early phase on community action also showed that more affluent and stable communities were more likely to undertake this kind of activity, it also emerged that a shift in attitude among at least a segment of this population was emerging. They were prepared to begin thinking about rural sustainability in a wider sense: in terms of questions of futurity, including confronting social change, balanced economic growth and intergenerational equity.

This phase featured local populations looking to challenge normative assumptions and looking for tools to assist in building a more detailed knowledge of local population demographics, preferences and issues (see Moseley, 1997; Owen, 2002). Much of this activity reflected a frustration at formal planning and represented efforts to fill the gap that formal town and country planning had been unable or unwilling (p.186) to fill. This involved capturing attitudes, preferences and needs of communities directly through survey work in the main. As a number of such appraisals were generated pressure built on government to examine the potentials of this work. The timing coming into the 1990s also chimed with a re-emergence of a concern with active citizenship and an encouragement to play a more engaged role in local service provision. The Rural White Paper of 1995 tentatively carried a more integrated construction of the countryside and the variety of interests therein, allied to a government aspiration to see more ‘governance with communities’ (Woods, 2008, 19) and providing a political space for the parish and village appraisal tools (see Murdoch, 1997). Village and parish appraisals were developed as menus of questions for self-constructed community surveys and then as rudimentary software to assist community activists to collate and analyse the data they collected. The kernel of the idea held potential – a potential that involved local populations, led by volunteers, doing much of the groundwork in terms of developing quite detailed local evidence bases to shape community action – and moreover to influence planners and other decision makers. Many of the surveys done were revealing a neglect of rural services and a more diverse set of attitudes towards development than otherwise assumed.

This activity showed up several strategic issues; the lack of proactive planning and the serious underplaying of social considerations and economic development in rural areas. Second, the capacity, appetite and potentials of local populations to actively participate and engage in building evidence bases for policymakers and for their own community leaders to steer local agendas. This was demonstrated in such appraisals and similar survey work and pointed towards a need for support for the activity as well as better more advanced tools and techniques to reflect and address local challenges. Thus, much of this work was rather unstructured and often easily attacked, sidelined or plain ignored by planners and local politicians. The depth and breadth of the work was often limited, resulting in some frustration from within communities wanting to do more and better. So, too, from others raising serious concerns – perhaps obscuring the possible challenge to both professional expertise and to the representative democratic model – over the legitimacy of such outputs and their interpretation, the lack of robust methodology and linked concerns over inclusivity.

Lessons from this episode showed that planning and other service providers had little means to focus on small settlements and rural areas and that minority interests were receiving very little attention in rural areas (Milbourne, 1997). The timing of such community (p.187) activity did parallel a concern to ensure that local government was more accountable and where possible to examine services and actions that could be undertaken by citizens. The parish and village appraisal work were antecedents of the second episode and indicated that rural populations in particular had not been well served by policymakers and strategic planners since the post-Second World War settlement.

Episode 2: 2001–10. Parish planning in England

The parish and village appraisals experience showed potential to galvanise local populations and develop better knowledge and evidence to shape action (and a common feature that binds the three episodes). Those efforts sufficiently, or perhaps superficially, married with the government agenda directed towards local government modernisation and associated calls for active citizenship and were seen as possible tools to be extended so that ‘communities could play a much bigger role in running their own affairs, influencing and shaping their future development’ (MAFF/DETR, 2000, 145). The 2000 Rural White Paper rhetorically embraced the idea that citizens should be encouraged to become more actively involved in local governance (see Gardner, 2008) and cited village and parish appraisals as positive evidence of a desire and capacity for communities to play a more proactive role in local governance.

The second phase of community activity reviewed here saw central government take a more active interest in experimenting with what eventually became known as parish planning, a label adopted by the then Countryside Agency who launched a funded programme under that name – the Parish Plan Grant scheme (PPG). The five year programme was initiated in 2001 and represented a consolidation of lessons learned from village appraisals and a means to further develop active community governance. The PPG was launched with little consolidated experience to inform the scheme design at the outset and was put together rather rapidly in the wake of the Rural White Paper. PPG encouraged the formalisation of a community-led planning that was served with national funding and was accompanied with broad aims and loose strictures (Countryside Agency, 2003). The parish planning process was to involve the development of a better understanding of all sections of the community by that community, in terms of self-identified issues and problems, as well as things that were of value. The approach was also conceived to add an action planning element as part of the development of a future vision for the area. Although these sound like the ingredients of a basic planning technique the (p.188) scheme was non-statutory and communities were able to adopt an holistic approach as an experiment in local agenda setting. A substantial amount of action learning and modification to the structure, processes and guidance for parish planning were developed in that period, as well as the development of practical experience in the communities and on the part of community development workers involved (see Parker, 2008).

Claims about the uptake of parish planning vary and an upper estimate of around 8,700 Parish Plans by 2007 was declared in a report to government by SQW (2007). This figure is likely to be an overestimate given that Action for Communities in Rural England (ACRE) claimed something like 4,000 parish and community-led plans were in place by 2010, but it was clear that there were a very significant number, with some notable hotspots of activity in southern England with the south east of England recording over 1,000 completed Parish Plans by 2010 (Parker and Lynn, 2012). The typical Parish Plan completion period was between 18 and 24 months and many were done with minimal monetary outlay; relying instead on light community development support, in-kind contributions and volunteer time.

The PPG scheme helped tentative partnership working to be developed between local authorities, other service providers and representatives of the communities, despite overestimating the level of activity, the 2007 SQW report looking at parish planning found that in the early period ‘parish plans are having difficulty being accepted as long term developmental tools’ (2007, 25) reflecting wider attitudes towards community-led action on the part of many local authorities. The aspiration of government was that such initiatives would complement and inform the new planning system under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which introduced both Statements of Community Involvement and formalised the idea of ‘frontloading’ participation in the statutory planning system (Doak and Parker, 2005).

While the central government funding for parish planning was cut back after 2005 the intervening period to 2010 saw some significant continued activity – many plans were still in progress with others being initiated using local funds. In some more enlightened local authority areas (see Parker, 2008; 2012) these types of community-led plans were seen as opportunities to develop a stronger evidence base for the organisation of resources, as well as beginning to help shape land use planning. The plans covered a wide range of topics and issues and were making some inroads in influencing decision-makers. The majority of the content and actions were not within the ambit of land-use (p.189) planning. One important and difficult subject featuring in many plans that did clearly have planning repercussions was the provision of affordable rural housing, with some evidence that the consideration of topics such as this by communities was shifting attitudes (Parker and Lynn, 2012; Gallent and Robinson, 2013; Bishop, 2010). The non-statutory status of these documents, however, meant that they carried very little weight in most cases.

Thus the potentials of parish planning were never fully realised and participants and intermediary organisations were frustrated and rather disappointed that government were, on the one hand supportive in terms of policy rhetoric, as demonstrated in the continued use of active and engaged citizenship rhetoric by the Blair administration, but on the other, in terms of resources, the government was not prepared to put in the quite minimal amount of funding to continue and develop the community-led planning approach (Parker, 2008; 2012; Gallent et al, 2008). The wider funding package, of which PPG took a minority of the overall budget, had only cost £12 million over the five years. One reading of the decision to cease funding is that relatively affluent and largely Conservative areas were perceived as benefiting from this activity while the Labour urban heartlands were not.

Parish planning has remained a niche activity with communities in rural areas. In urban areas other forms of community action were orchestrated around localised projects, or were limited to discussing individual projects, led through neighbourhood forums or decentralisation experiments in neighbourhood or ward level structures (Broughton et al, 2013; Lowndes and Sullivan, 2008), as well as featuring more standard consultation mechanisms that fed into statutory strategies that were to help shape local government decision-making; notably Sustainable Community Strategies since 2000 (Raco et al, 2006). The direction taken in rural England had a more planning-led orientation through parish planning with a theme of evidence gathering and prioritisation, even though it was still outwith the formal planning system and much of the actions were not linked directly to land-use planning. So, given our focus, the community-led planning strand of activity has had a significant influence on governmental thinking about how to organise and direct community action and led to the birth of neighbourhood planning in episode 3. The work by communities themselves with limited financial support in episodes 1 and 2 indicated to policymakers that a new way of orchestrating planning activity was possible on this count at least.

(p.190) Episode 3: 2011–15? Neighbourhood development planning in England

The last phase discussed here saw the practices and lessons of the first episodes drawn into a model that featured a reliance on the potential of community action being written into the statutory planning system. This move was underpinned by a belief that local people had sufficient interest in planning to invest time and energy in creating community-led plans to be known as Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs) enabled under the Localism Act 2011. This policy was presented as a key component of the UK coalition government’s ‘localism’ agenda and tied closely into the second key policy aim of economic growth as enshrined in numerous government proclamations since the May 2010 election and expressed in the Localism Act itself.

The Conservative party, with its strong rural constituency and in search of policy ideas during their period in opposition (1997–2010), were influenced by the successes of the parish planning model as discussed above. The number of Parish Plans produced with quite minimal resourcing gave grounds to assume that similar activity could be mainstreamed successfully and furthermore the approach appealed ideologically; with its association to decentralisation and self-help. Their thinking was expressed in the Open Source Planning green paper which set out a vision for a re-orientated planning system where ‘local people in each neighbourhood…will be able to specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area’ (Conservative Party, 2010, 2). The green paper goes on to claim that: ‘This will lead to a fundamental and long overdue rebalancing of power, away from the centre and back into the hands of local people’ (Conservative Party, 2010, 2). Thus, when elected the coalition led by the Conservatives duly included neighbourhood planning as part of the wider reforms of the planning system which were set out in the Localism Act (2011) and through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published in 2012.

NDPs were part of a group of ‘community rights’ expressed in the Act which were purported to provide a ‘powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community’ (DCLG, 2012, para. 184). Although there is little space to discuss the whole set of associated community rights included as part of the Localism Act (see DCLG, 2013), there are some common issues relating to the capacity and support to make effective use of these rights, including neighbourhood planning, that have emerged with some familiar resonance to prior efforts to empower, including questions (p.191) of resource and support, lack of skills and knowledge, inertias and competing priorities from local government, variable motivation and intra-community conflict and misunderstandings of the requirements needed to meet the neighbourhood development planning regulations.

The challenges in navigating NDPs according to the required bureaucratic frame have been temporarily tackled by funding direct support for many neighbourhood planning groups. The rules in essence are that NDPs must be in ‘general conformity’ with the NPPF and the strategic policies of the Local Plan – as prepared by the local planning authority. NDPs require certain basic conditions to be fulfilled and may be more or less comprehensive in their scope, but the statutory element of the NDP document produced can only be a matter for land use planning. These tests may present difficulties for non-planners: how do they know with any certainty if their draft plans do meet the criteria? This work becomes not only a technical challenge but a question of confidence and interpretation too. The power to determine legitimacy still rests beyond the neighbourhood and thus far most emerging NDPs have required significant professional support. Pre-examination screening is being strongly advised and there are fears that rejected NDPs will deter new community forums progressing or entering the NDP process.

In relation to the focus on development and growth, the limited scope for action or challenge is also established firmly: ‘[n]eighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies’ (DCLG, 2012, para. 184, my emphasis) and the NDP must contribute to achieving sustainable development. This constrains the community in terms of opposing development or change if it is already set out in a superior planning policy document. The freedom to choose the level of development has been restricted and could undermine the motivations of some community leaders.

The Plans when completed have legal weight but are not obligatory; it is up to the community whether they want to produce one. There are a series of required administrative steps involved in the NDP process. Including setting up a community forum (in some areas the parish council, in others with no parish or town council this will be a new group), and this must have at least 21 members. The Forum needs to be formally recognised by the local planning authority and equally the boundary of the neighbourhood has to be agreed too. Meanwhile, early plan preparation may be commenced while such formalities are in hand and lessons from the earlier episodes of community-led planning are clearly useful in terms of community engagement and in preparing a (p.192) vision for the area. As a result a majority of the early NDPs are from rural areas – often with a track record in undertaking activity outlined in episode 1 and/or 2. Early experiences in urban areas have shown how even the initial stages of NDPs present challenges and delays in these diverse and often contested local areas which are not parished (Parker, 2012).

The NDP can be detailed, or general, comprehensive or narrow in focus. Communities can use neighbourhood development planning to influence the type, design, location and mix of new development. General planning policies for the development and use of land in the neighbourhood can cover where new homes and offices should be built and include matters of design as long as they conform to the local plan. If the local plan says that an area needs to grow, then communities cannot use neighbourhood planning to block the building of new homes – although there is potential to direct where exactly the development might go. The Plan will also need to be in line with local and national planning policies as above (and other relevant law including European environmental law and human rights legislation).

Local Planning Authorities have a duty to support communities in making a NDP within their area during the process. Once a NDP draft has been prepared, an independent examiner will check that it meets the basic conditions required. After satisfactorily passing this screening and making any necessary amendments, a neighbourhood referendum on the NDP is organised by the local authority. If more than 50 per cent of people voting in the referendum support the Plan then the local planning authority must bring it into force. Once a NDP is confirmed decision makers are obliged to consider proposals for development against it.

While NDPs are offered-up by the coalition government as potential routes towards empowerment there are considerable qualifications or obstacles to those already emerging. A number of the immediate issues relating to process and to difficulties presented by community politics and resources have been outlined elsewhere (see Parker, 2012) and many are common to other episodes or other forms of community engagement. The limits of the NDPs, the complexity and difficulties in synchronisation with emerging local plans, disputes over boundaries and the presence of alternative means of tackling some or all of the issues that a NDP may present are additionally shaping the geography and slowing early take-up, progress and attitudes in some places.

In some such areas local planning authorities have been reluctant to commit scarce resources to something that could, to some with a more jaundiced view, be regarded as a laudable but short-lived and inefficient (p.193) experiment. The period 2011–13 saw community-led planning (NDP) under the Localism Act still developing and momentum had grown by the time of writing, with around 800 communities developing NDPs despite the obstacles, caution and critical voices. A number of others have instead made use of existing tools to achieve aspects of neighbourhood planning or community-led preferences including the ongoing option of developing a non-statutory community-led plan or Parish Plan (see RTPI, 2011; Parker, 2012).

Despite the reservations and teething problems there are clear indications that neighbourhood planning will remain a feature of planning in England. There appears to be a growing political consensus that some form of neighbourhood scale planning is important and should be encouraged. Thus community-led planning is likely to remain in some form beyond 2015, yet how it is designed and orientated is likely to change, with moves to direct more attention to disadvantaged communities being discussed and a perceived need to find ways to simplify the process and requirements likely to feature in a ‘fourth episode’ of community-led planning in England. The key point is that moving community action developed in episodes 1 and 2 from non-statutory status into the statutory system is forcing LPAs and the wider culture of planning to confront the challenges of the collaborative planning paradigm more squarely. It is also developing an understanding of the difficulties and challenges faced by professional planners within the wider community and both will need time and consistent support and resourcing to grow the mutual learning that is a key feature of transactive planning. In short, there is emerging evidence that both community activists and professional planners are developing mutual learning. NDPs are opening up spaces for locally derived knowledge and evidence to be drawn in and upwards into formal policymaking and governance above the neighbourhood scale. These are early days indeed for NDPs but there is some cause for optimism amid the caution.

Conclusion: community planning at the neighbourhood scale in England

Experience with community-led planning activity, over the past two decades in England using the lens of three linked ‘episodes’ have generated a rich if fragmented set of experiences. A significant moment came with the passing of the Localism Act in 2011 – this saw neighbourhood scale, community-led planning activity enshrined in law and made part of the statutory planning system. Given just how much has been written about collaborative planning in various forms (p.194) and guises in the past 40 years it is, at first glance, surprising that practice in England has taken so long to catch up with the theoretical debates over collaborative planning.

Yet community-led planning as discussed above is only one grouping of a variety practices and experimentation tried in England. Governments have been cautious about the possible resource and possible delays or barriers to development that collaborative planning at the neighbourhood scale could imply in the statutory process. For advocates of forms of transactive planning community-led planning can help to ‘promote the deliberative aspect of and create and protect the conditions for deep and genuine civic discourse’ (Sager, 2009b, 3) and help develop associated necessary mutual learning. Yet the persuasive critique from post-political theorists warn of the dangers of participants being either co-opted or marginalised, or neighbourhood-scale activities being kept isolated and compartmentalised and thus making very little difference. This concern reflects the idea that community-led planning may represent little more than the reorientation or consolidation of neo-liberalism (Haughton et al, 2013). Swyngedouw, for example, argues that such spaces can ‘forestall the articulation of divergent, conflicting and alternative trajectories of future socio-environmental possibilities’ (2010, 195) and the experience and research in community-led planning in this regard is admittedly mixed (see Parker and Murray, 2012; Parker and Street, forthcoming).

There are a series of inertias and vested interests that have acted to slow or subvert the aims of community-led planning in England but others doggedly see the potentials, despite the difficulties, that these mechanisms can offer. So putting grander debates to one side and suspending disbelief to a degree, it may be that community-led planning in England in this period together represents a significant step and there is clearly a momentum that is bringing elements of transactive planning into being. At least the latter two stages bear some of the credentials that reflect Friedmann’s aspirations for the development of a transactive planning (and/or the schema set out in Chapter 1). Much is still in play, however, and the first period of neighbourhood planning will be under scrutiny from several different perspectives. The experiences of communities that have been active in one or more of the episodes outlined above are such that the process has been useful in terms of developing knowledge and awareness and networks within and beyond the neighbourhood. Relations between community activists and planners and others have often improved in areas where community-led planning has settled in (Parker and Murray, 2012). Yet the latter episode is revealing more of the difficulties and issues that statutory (p.195) status brings given the legal requirements and the imposition of a frame that requires ‘growth’ and the associated likelihood of challenge by some developers keen to search for weaknesses and opportunities. Conversely the weight of statutory duty necessitates that local government and others take neighbourhood development planning seriously. There is every indication that neighbourhoods need support and continuities in order to develop knowledge and understanding and new skills for both communities and planners. Aspirations to build capacity that could see communities planning for themselves are somewhat off the mark however; community-led planning experiences thus far demonstrate that intermediaries and professional input is critical.

Given the above there are a series of issues and questions to be addressed from varying conceptual and practical perspectives:

  • Critical academics – They are looking for purity against the ideals of collaborative planning theory and empowerment in the context of the post-political critique. They are concerned that similar approaches can actually be used to marginalise dissent and prevent change. Is this happening?

  • Local Planning Authorities/public sector planners – They are pragmatic and resource driven and there is a tension between what is possible and what is desired, with competing priorities, and a use of alternative tools may be instrumentally useful but they will not develop the transactive ideal.

  • Local politicians – community-led planning is a threat to representative democracy, cross-boundary considerations are problematic.

  • National government and strategic planners – Their ability to deliver on strategic goals and matters that transcend the local is an issue, together with the difficulty of maintaining trust when localist priorities are trumped by larger concerns.

  • Communities and community groups – Do they make a difference? Can they manage it? Is it worth it? These are linked to the transaction cost question. What alternatives are there to community-led planning or NDP? What is learned and gained in process as well as outcome terms? Will government continue to support the community-led planning approach?

Overall there are considerations of how community-led planning can assist in: 1: developing social capital, as well as 2: shaping tangible change, and 3: the reformulation of planning and decision-making structures (Holman and Rydin, 2013; Rydin, Chapter 2, this volume).

(p.196) Associated to this threefold question there are issues that relate to the process and the design of neighbourhood planning itself. At least six factors are relevant and can be distilled down into the mnemonic of PROAKT: Process; Relations; Outcome; Attitudes; Knowledge and Trust, and are otherwise explained as how the system/process is designed and operationalised, with whom, and the need to bring required actors onside by whatever means, for what purpose and how the aims and limits are constructed and, latterly, the associated need to educate, inform and develop trust so that community-led planning will be robust, high-quality and durable.

Another issue that is marginalised in these debates but cannot be avoided is how to integrate and deliberate on the views, preferences and needs of local communities with the policies and strategic needs derived from ‘greater than local’ sources as intimated earlier in this chapter. Furthermore, bridging the accompanying mindsets or rationalities that can frustrate the vertical integration of ideas, needs and interests has been neglected. There is a need to find ways to learn from the community development model and to focus effort at vertical two-way integration of knowledge and needs at global, national, regional and local/neighbourhood scale. Both need to be reconciled and decisions about what is most usefully kept outwith the statutory process and what is required as part of a statutory element of planning in England is still moot.

The transactive examples discussed are indicative of how different rationalities and emphases can affect participatory spaces. The opportunity and aspiration of transactive planning is derived not only from developing capacity and awareness on the part of communities, but also in shaping a new sensibility in planners and encouraging new roles for elected politicians. The cumulation of the episodes outlined here and the ‘crossing of the Rubicon’ that the Localism Act represents, provides an opportunity to firmly embed the transactive ideal in formal planning – it remains to be seen what the costs (and benefits) of such transactions really are. For sure, there needs to be a great deal of work done in developing wider awareness and civic engagement with planning challenges. That task is one that needs to be taken up by government, public authorities, schools, universities and professional institutes: to name just a few.



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(1) Here transactive planning, as process, is read as part of a wider collaborative planning paradigm.

(p.197) (2) The term community-led planning is used to denote all activity that is discussed here at the lower than district level, that is, parish planning, community-led planning and neighbourhood development planning under the Localism Act (2011), see also Parker and Murray (2012) and Parker (2012).

(3) A parish is the smallest unit of government in England, initially an ecclesiastical term, most parishes are overseen by elected parish or town councils. Numbering well over 10,000, most of these units of administration are found in rural areas.