Neighbourhood planning has grown exponentially since the Localism Act was implemented in 2011. To date, over 730 neighbourhood plans have been adopted (or ‘made’) across England, and more than 2,500 neighbourhood areas designated. Both numbers continue to increase rapidly. Neighbourhood planning bodies are also becoming increasingly ambitious and sophisticated in their plan-making and plan monitoring and take their responsibilities very seriously.
In this context, graduates are increasingly attracted to starting out their planning careers in neighbourhood planning, giving them both a unique perspective on planning with people rather than for people and equipping them with key skills in helping groups build up their evidence base and navigate the complexities of planning.
If you are interested in making a career out of neighbourhood planning, it’s important to be mindful of some of the key differences you will find between it and local authority or government-level planning.
Probably the biggest difference is that the people at the centre of the process, the neighbourhood group themselves, are usually not professional or career planners. Typically, they are volunteers who often have wide life and professional experience and may be able to offer a variety of skills, but with little or no planning expertise. They do however have a passion for their place and often have significant knowledge about the physical, environmental and historic aspects of their neighbourhood.
This means that if you are a public or private sector town planning professional working with them, you will need good interpersonal and communications skills, and be prepared to explain certain aspects of the planning system from first principles, including its focus on evidence. This will ensure that the group has the knowledge needed to develop effective and robust policies, underpinned by proportionate evidence.
Other important things to bear in mind when working in the field include:
The need to keep politics and planning separate. Neighbourhood residents and local councillors can sometimes have strong views on issues that may not necessarily be within the remit of a land use plan or a technical, evidence-based process. Many designated neighbourhood planning groups put politics to one side in order for their plan to progress, particularly for contentious processes like site allocations.
Being realistic about what neighbourhood plans can and can’t do. The neighbourhood planning system has been designed with a number of constraints built in- for example, you cannot and should not use a neighbourhood plan as a mechanism for blocking development. There is sometimes a need to manage neighbourhood expectations of what can or, more often, cannot, be achieved through the neighbourhood plan.
The importance of effective engagement with local planning authorities. It’s fair to say that there is a great range when it comes to how local authorities engage with neighbourhood groups - some are more proactive about and enthused by neighbourhood planning than others. Whatever the approach, effective communication with the relevant officer from an early stage can bring a number of benefits - for example, informal comments or observations on emerging policies ahead of formal consultation.
Focussing minds. Getting from neighbourhood plan area designation (itself a pretty detailed process in the case of a Neighbourhood Forum) to neighbourhood plan adoption can be a long and arduous process taking several years, and typically may include volunteer turnover. It is crucial to ensure that any group trying to get a neighbourhood plan adopted keeps their eyes on the prize, minimises tangential or abortive work, and doesn’t get dissuaded by the many obstacles along the way, whether technical, political or resource constraints. This requires patience, focus and excellent organisational skills.
The expertise and knowledge of local residents. Though maybe not career planners, they have lived and worked in the area, in some cases for decades, and will know it inside out. Enriching and improving the neighbourhood plan by tapping into their extensive knowledge will need a degree of imagination and creativity, recognising that planning professionals can themselves learn a lot from local people and the issues they are grappling with.
Neighbourhood planning can be a rich, rewarding process for planning professionals. You can empower local people to make a real and positive difference to their communities and at the same time get a fresh, grassroots perspective on the rest of the planning system.
Nick Chisholm-Batten and Jesse Homey are both associate directors of consultancy AECOM