Journal Article 2 of 2…

Jeff Bishop’s previous journal post raised alarm bells about the likelihood of Neighbourhood Priorities Statements (NPSs) failing if important lessons are not learned from the 1990s experience with, in particular, Parish and Town Plans. In this second linked journal article, he explains why, in his view, there is no positive way forward for NPSs if those lessons are not learned or – most importantly – unless they are seen to be, and used as, part of a coherent approach to providing communities with a genuine role in shaping their futures. And not just in relation to land use planning.

An Example to Draw From?

As it happens, a hint about how this might happen successfully can be drawn from some work that we (Place Studio) did with Planning Aid Wales (PAW) for Conwy County Borough Council (CCBC) in Wales.

Early in the noughties and with help from me, the Welsh Government introduced Village Design Statements (VDSs – see previous blog) that could be made into SPG (they still use that term in Wales) and many were produced by communities. There was also, in parallel, an informal programme encouraging Community Councils (their equivalent of Parish Councils) to produce forms of action plan to generate, prioritise and seek funding for local projects. Finally, a few years ago, the Welsh Government also picked up on the idea of Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs) in England and introduced, again with our help, their slightly different version called Place Plans. Place Plans can also become SPG but they are less detailed than NDPs and, for example, cannot get into issues such as site allocation.

The approach taken by PAW working with CCBC was focused on understanding the specific benefits of each of the methods just described, ensuring that each community made the right choice for their particular situation and then supporting them as they moved forward. Four or five Community Councils signed up to get engaged with this overall approach. The first stage was not dissimilar to that used for Parish Plans, i.e. each Community Council undertook a community survey, using a common basic format, to draw out issues, needs, gaps, projects etc. (think Neighbourhood Priorities Statements).

There was then a full day workshop, run by PAW, bringing together community representatives and officers from CCBC. The officers explained what various initiatives they were underway with or developing on issues such as transport, leisure, health etc., and also including planning – the link to the Local Development Plan (LDPs are the Welsh version of Local Plans). It soon became clear that some community issues were already, or could be better, picked up through the authority plans and projects, not just the LDP. The next stage of the workshop focused on each community’s issues and a discussion of which could be best addressed through a Design Statement, a Place Plan or an Action Plan. There was also discussion of the various forms of guidance and support that communities could access to help them with whatever choice they made subsequently. The participating Community Councils were also strongly encouraged to talk to each other, share experience, learn common lessons etc.

The key points from this relevant to future practice in England are:

  • There is, in Conwy at least, a coherent, managed and sequential relationship between what we in England call Neighbourhood Priorities Statements, Local Authority Plans (including Local Plans), Design Statements, Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs) and potentially Community Action Plans. (The last of these morphs from the best of Parish and Town Plans, converting priorities and aspirations from the survey into an evidenced programme of practical projects.)
  • Neighbourhood Priorities Statements (NPSs) can be focused mainly on local issues, priorities and ideas drawn from forms of thorough survey and not move on – at that stage – to what initiative might be best to deliver on those priorities.
  • NPSs can therefore address any and every issue of concern to a community, and not be ambiguous about which are and are not related to land use planning.
  • With a NPS in place, a genuinely considered decision can then be made by authority and community about which initiative (if any) a community could then take forward – Design Statement, NDP or Action Plan.
  • Rather than each community operating in isolation, the CCBC approach saves overall resources by bringing people together (which also saves resources for them) and encourages a valuably cumulative exchange of ideas and experience between local communities and with their local authority.

So What’s Needed?

(This is all very ‘shorthand’ – no space for lengthy arguments in a blog!)

1. Good Community Level ‘Ingredients’

As hinted above, these should be Neighbourhood Priorities Statements, Neighbourhood Development Plans, Neighbourhood Design Statements and possibly Neighbourhood Action Plans (NAPs).

Neighbourhood Priorities Statements should be very wide-ranging and not just address planning-related issues. National guidance (and ideally training) will be needed both for communities and authorities. The core methodology can be some form of community survey. When results are returned to the local authority, they would clarify back to the community exactly where issues belong with planning or highways, environmental health or education etc. and direct people to the key policies and programmes. Government will need to state clearly what status these should have and exactly how local authorities should take account of them and prove that they have done so.

Though not easy to do because of the understandable rigour needed, it would be good to find a way of making Neighbourhood Development Plans simpler, speedier and less demanding on often limited (and sometimes hardly existent) community resources. For example, could formal consultation stages be reduced and could plans that are not intending to allocate sites (as is often the case) be given a fast-track route? (Many urban areas are already almost fully developed so allocation is not an issue for them.) Surely by now a compendium of model NDP policies should be available with appropriate cautions about what evidence is needed to back them up? (And see final comment.)

There appears to be a consensus that some form of Community Design Statements are needed as part of the authority level regime of design codes and guides. Wiltshire Council have recently produced the draft Wiltshire Design Guide (not a code!) which states that “Neighbourhood Plans can include an extra tier of design guidance”. This is positive and all authorities should do the same, but it has some problems. Some communities we have spoken to want to do a Design Statement but do not want to get into the rigmarole and time necessary to do a NDP. They are, however, aware that the NDP route is the way to get funding and also to deliver real status through a made plan, especially in authorities that do not accept statements as SPD. Very sadly however, in all cases that we know of, these communities have chosen not to proceed with a Design Statement because of the lack of grant aid for that alone. What is needed is clear government support for separate Design Statements to become SPD and a funding regime for communities to do them (though doing one within a NDP is still a good approach). Some guidance and training would also be valuable and models exists for doing that very time- and cost-effectively.

And is there a place in this overall regime for Neighbourhood Action Plans? If one could clear away the historic baggage of Parish and Town Plans with rural communities, the answer is very much ‘yes’. As suggested earlier, some good Town Plans, developed with help from their local authorities have helped all sorts of valuable community projects to go forward, often projects that the authority would like to have done but couldn’t, and often by accessing funding that local authorities cannot access and drawing on practical ‘sweat equity’ help from local people.

2. Please, please — a ‘Recipe’!

If it is not obvious from the above, what we really need is a ‘recipe’ – a genuinely joined-up approach to link together all those neighbourhood level initiatives.

Let’s start with national government. The current fragmented situation is worryingly illustrated by the comment in the earlier blog that there is no link at all in the Levelling Up Act between NPSs, NDPs and Design Codes! There are or should be links (if not in the Act) and all the later secondary legislation, planning practice guidance and so forth should clarify that. That would pick up on several points in the section above, e.g. ensuring Design Statements can become SPD.

And what about local government? This may seem like a daft time to be suggesting more tasks for local authorities (those not yet bankrupt) but there is another way of looking at this. What was found in the days of Village Design Statements was that each generated around 4,500 hours of community time. Translating that into sweat equity (at £10 per hour) created an input of around £45,000 per statement. One authority proactively supported 34 VDS so, in effect, they added c.£1.5m to their authority’s budget (not to mention all the social value)! Authorities get paid to support NDPs (so why not NDSs?) but that is almost always poorly used by helping each NDP group entirely separately, constantly reinventing the wheel. Working more proactively could not only save money and improve practice by bringing communities together and getting them to share experience but also, that way, access the astonishing resources of that sweat equity model. That’s doing more even when there is less!

And finally, back to one of the aims of NPSs – to help more urban communities. This is fundamentally important given the continuing evidence that it is the more wealthy, more rural communities which are accessing the majority of NDP funding. As suggested, full NDPs are not appropriate for many urban communities but many would find Priorities Statements, Design Statements and Action Plans extremely useful, and that would come across better at the start and then be more effectively managed if such things were all linked together. And this also requires different types of support. The NDP guidance, good though it is, is all fairly technical and often overlong (that on design is almost 60 pages). What many urban communities need is something one step before this; all the old familiar but as yet missing stuff on capacity building, community development, community networking, skill development etc. This is also about a very different form of advice; not professional/technical but rooted in an understanding of how to help communities get organised to the point where, for example, committing to a Design Statement is achievable. Without that, I believe it is unrealistic to think that even NPSs will encourage more urban communities to get engaged.

My first blog on this topic started with the need to learn from history. Almost everything described in this second blog about a way forward already has a positive history. Once again, we just need to learn from it!

(In terms of positive ways forward, especially but not solely for urban areas, see the report to government by Neighbourhood Planners.London suggesting all sorts of valuable  improvements to the NDP regime: