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Local councils as community leaders

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NEIL HOMER, DIRECTOR AT ONEILL HOMER LTD


Neighbourhood planning has come a long way in the last decade. Given its origins and untested introduction in 2011, it’s perhaps surprising that it has fared so well in the face of many challenges.

More than 1,000 plans have been made, with many more well underway, with the prospect of that number doubling within the next couple of years or so if we count successfully modified plans. And town and parish councils have been at the vanguard of this most significant advance in community engagement in the planning system since its invention in 1947.

If anything, the next ten years will need neighbourhood plans to frame this engagement even more than before. Local planning authorities are unlikely to have the resources to plan at the local community level, whether town centre, suburb, market town or village. And besides, time and again, communities, through their local councils, have demonstrated that with the right incentives and support, they are better placed to shape their futures anyway.

The zero-carbon challenge we face now will increase the complexity and importance of the inevitable trade-offs between competing policy objectives. How to plan to meet our communities’ needs for housing and infrastructure without increasing our carbon footprints? How to intensify our towns and villages to stop forever spreading outwards without ‘town cramming’ and radically changing their character?

When presented with these challenges, we have found that local communities are willing to face up to them and be optimistic about the future. Even if older people lead most with more time on their hands, they will always want to do their best for their communities and seek to represent those that can’t be around the table. Local councils know their patches, understand their histories and the nuances of what makes a place tick (or not) in ways that the standard technical evidence will struggle to find.

At NALC’s Future Communities 2021 conference, we’ll hear the stories of three such councils, each facing their challenges in using neighbourhood plans to make their communities more sustainable. This might be in increasing access to affordable housing, helping maintain the viability of the local school and shop or in wanting to manage growth so that it fits well with the character of the place.

None were projects with easy answers. Each local council had to lead and follow local opinion and be willing and confident to argue its case. Each did so by genuinely engaging with their communities and providing objective information on the choices to be made. Two of those plans have been made and successfully withstood developer challenges. The other is on its way through examination, having to win the backing of a reluctant planning authority.

These plans – and many, many more like them in our experience – have proven that neighbourhood planning works. The process is as simple as it needs to be, and professional help is now ready and available in all parts of the country. Indeed, more can and should be done to encourage more neighbourhood planning, especially where there are no local councils, but that needs to focus on those other parts of the planning system that have hindered its appeal and growth.

Town and parish councils have also proven that they have been able to rise to the challenges. We think this will stand them in good stead for playing a new, vital role in helping planning authorities transform how they engage with communities in both Local Plans making and managing planning applications in the future. Frankly, we can’t see a way that this could happen without local councils as community leaders.  

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