Having worked as a consultant supporting communities and local authorities on neighbourhood planning for more than six years, it even surprises me just how much I have learned over that time. I have not just developed new skills but a better understanding of what makes communities tick and how to get them to engage in thinking about their place. Neighbourhood planning has allowed the social aspect of planning to inform physical change and that is something that we planning professionals sometimes forget.
The way that neighbourhood planning work can have a positive impact on policy officer and consultant alike is the requirement to roll up your sleeves and get ‘down and dirty’ with real people. I mean people that have rushed home from work, changed out of the suit and are ready to talk about things they genuinely care about. There is little in the way of playing politics but a lot of passion and interest from all different types of people. You may be meeting in the draughty village hall and you may have to help set the tables and chairs up yourself but rarely do you leave after an event without some better perspective on the issues that matter.
What neighbourhood planning does is to get all us planners to better understand the value of ‘engagement’ as opposed to ‘consultation’. Mention ‘consultation’ to communities and you get a careworn response. Talk about engaging – an ongoing conversation – about the future of a community and people become more positive. Help to carry out that process of engagement with communities and you not only help them but you usually learn something new from it too. In this regard, planners working in the development industry would do well to learn this too. Neighbourhood planning teaches you to listen before you start talking; this is important because communities don’t plan for planning’s sake – they are only interested in the outcomes.
Neighbourhood planning is somewhat freeform - you can try stuff. Whilst there is nothing to stop local authorities being more flexible in their approach to developing local plans, the scale at which neighbourhood planning is undertaken really means you can experiment with all sorts of different aspects of developing a plan. As we have discovered, popcorn stands and live tweeting of walkabouts engage people a lot more than dull exhibition boards and formal consultation forms. Policy drafting creates the opportunity to push harder in areas that planning doesn’t normally extend to and once you banish well-worn policy wording from your mind and say, “why can’t they have a policy on air pollution or community growing spaces?”, you realise how much you are pushing the boundaries.
In this regard, neighbourhood planning forces you to understand what is important to communities rather than what we planners perceive to be important. This comes back to the fundamental principle that planning is ultimately a social discipline and failure to understand the social dynamics of place means that planning becomes about everything other than people.
The breadth of what one must know as a consultant is equal parts exciting and terrifying. Disregard the phrase about being a jack of all trades and you quickly find yourself having to plug the gaps in your knowledge, be it on viability, design, strategic environmental assessment or habitats regulations. This satisfaction is mirrored by your involvement in the whole plan-making process from start to finish, not just on one small aspect.
Lastly, whether it contributes towards advancing your career or not, there is a satisfaction in helping people to do what they feel is best for their community. To my mind, that should be what planning is about.
Chris Bowden is director of consultancy Navigus Planning.