Careers Advice - Neighbourhood Planning

Tony Burton

Neighbourhood plans are the new kid on the block for development planners.

Yet in just five years we now have more made neighbourhood plans than adopted local plans. Over 2,000 communities are already engaged and neighbourhood planning offers exciting new opportunities for planning professionals.

The process is led by parish/town councils or specially created neighbourhood forums and brings a new community-led approach to planning.

The idea that local people can draw up a plan carrying the same legal weight as the local planning authority hasn't gone down well in some professional quarters but those who embrace the change will find it hugely rewarding.

Local authority planners still play a key role in the neighbourhood planning process, and communities - backed by a £21m+ government support programme - are commissioning other planning professionals to help them.

From my experience as community activist, neighbourhood planning consultant, convener of Neighbourhood Planners.London and independent examiner, there are six key lessons for budding neighbourhood planning professionals to take on board.

1. Embrace the community - Given the opportunity, it is remarkable what a local community can do to plan better for its area. Preparing a neighbourhood plan is a major undertaking and the vast majority are taking it on responsibly and with the benefit of the vast reservoir of local knowledge and insight that can never be accessed by professionals. You may need to shed prejudices about communities full of usual suspects banging drums and saying no. The neighbourhood planning journey is a significant one for local volunteers and one of its many benefits can be to build understanding and respect for planning professionals.  

2. Know your place - Work with a neighbourhood planning group and you will be tested not only on your understanding of the locality but also your ability to work in new ways with volunteers outside the constraints and procedures of the office environment. It will pay to do your homework and to be open to different approaches and working methods to achieve results.

3. Listen and support - Local communities are well aware they can't prepare the best neighbourhood plan by themselves. They are hugely appreciative of professional guidance and support but it has to be delivered in the right way. Many neighbourhood planners have years of experience of being talked down to and patronised by local authorities and other statutory bodies. One of the fundamental tenets of neighbourhood planning is a shift in power which puts local people in the driving seat and makes them the clients of change. Focus on building relationships and understanding the emotions that drive a group, not just the facts and information. Listen hard and support change rather than assuming superior knowledge and telling a neighbourhood planning group what to do.  

4. Use plain English - It's an obvious point but don't use the same vocabulary in a neighbourhood planning meeting as you might in the office or meeting a professional client. Nothing alienates local people more than being talked down to with language and acronyms that have nothing to do with their daily lives. On the plus side, watch out for how the vocabulary of planning policy is changing as fresh eyes look at the convolutions of planning jargon and try new language that might slowly turn planningspeak into English.  

5. Set boundaries - A key role for the planning professional is to help neighbourhood planners avoid wasting time and energy. Communities set off with high hopes. These are fuelled further through local engagement and many neighbourhood plan vision statement and objectives are not short of ambition. An early word about the practicality of what can be achieved or the limits of planning law and policy can save time and tears further down the line.  

6. Join the movement - Neighbourhood planning is about more than a development plan. It is rapidly becoming a social movement. Thousands of communities are engaged, social media (check out #neighbourhoodplanning) shares the twists and turn, networks like Neighbourhood Planners.London are being established, digital pioneers are leaving the planning profession in their slipstream and a new cadre of community planners is being formed.

The advice is simple - come aboard.  There's no denying neighbourhood planning is hard work. It is unpredictable. The hours of local volunteers are eclectic. The gap between ambition and delivery can be large. And these are precisely the reasons why it is such a fulfilling area for planning professionals to work. This is the vanguard of 21st century planning and there's so much more to come.  

Tony Burton is a neighbourhood planning consultant and convenor of Neighbourhood Planners.London

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