Did you feel the earth move late last Thursday night? If so, it was probably the reverberations from the UK finally ‘making’ its first Neighbourhood Plan, that for Upper Eden in Cumbria.
You can read the plan itself here, and you should. However, by being the first to have jumped through the many fiery hoops of neighbourhood planning (the last being Thursday’s local referendum), and thereby actually becoming a formal planning document, the Upper Eden Neighbourhood Development Plan may be of even more significance to the country at large than to the fine folk of Upper Eden.
(Since you ask, Upper Eden is the area including and surrounding Kirkby Stephen. It’s lovely: you should visit. And if you don’t really know what Neighbourhood Planning is, you could do a lot worse than to stop read this blog and read what the Planning Portal and Civic Voice have to say on the matter in general.)
I gather that a total of 1458 people voted in the Upper Eden referendum, with 1310 saying ‘Yes’ to the Plan and 148 saying ‘No’. That represented a turnout of around 34%, which compares with figures of around 41% and 49% respectively for the most recent District Council elections for the Kirkby Stephen and Ravenstonedale wards. (Brough, the third ward within the Neighbourhood Plan area, has been uncontested in the last two elections.) A one-third turnout is therefore far from shabby, being a great deal higher than the 15.6% turnout for the Cumbria Police & Crime Commissioner election last November. And, let’s face it, 34% is a far greater proportion of the population than usually shows the slightest interest in even the most important of planning-related public consultation events.
(For the record, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the Upper Eden referendum with the one in the Falklands, the results of which were announced today. A 99% ‘Yes’ vote on a 90% turnout isn’t a benchmark!)
Having had the experience of helping 11 distinct local communities in preparing their own Neighbourhood Plans over the last 16 months, and therefore knowing many of the trials and tribulations that the enterprise involves, I’m delighted that one has finally got past the post. However, while I’d like to think that most, if not all, of the Plans I’ve had some involvement with will also become adopted in due course, it’s only fair to say that although my confidence in positive outcomes does sometimes wax, it can also wane.
The Neighbourhood Planning I’ve done has been as part of teams put together by the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community and has involved my being knee-deep in public meetings, stakeholder workshops, design charrettes and (for me, crucially) walking around the areas in question, over intense periods of activity typically lasting 3-5 days at a time. The communities involved have included small rural towns, famous seaside resorts, historic cities and both the suburbs and inner areas of big cities; and the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned have been as diverse as you might guess. But there have been common threads. Like these.
a) Neighbourhood-level planning is a great idea. In principle. People should be encouraged to exert, and actually have, a greater influence over how the communities they’re part of change over time.
b) However, local people attracted to the idea of being actively involved in planning their neighbourhood often find their first encounter with the process to be a disappointment. ‘Localism’ can appear to grant them powers that they simply don’t have in reality, since the content of any given Neighbourhood Plan is legally constrained by higher strategic policies.
c) One of the most important first steps in the process is therefore to enable local people to understand that it is still almost certainly in their best interests to have a Neighbourhood Plan. As I found myself saying to one person: “You can keep fighting big planning applications one by one, with only a few of you being involved each time; or you can all get together now and agree key parameters for all major planning applications over the next 20 years. You won’t get all that you’d like (Which is probably just as well – Ed.); but you’ll get a great deal better than otherwise”.
d) Unless relevant skillsets and experience are unusually prevalent within the population of any given neighbourhood, external support will be necessary to help achieve two critical outcomes: (i) a reasonable consensus amongst the plan-makers (the Neighbourhood Forum & co.) about WHAT the Plan should contain, and (ii) HOW best to formulate a Plan that delivers those agreed objectives.
e) The need for outside assistance with the WHAT might sound odd: don’t local people know best? However, help is likely to be needed in setting parameters for types of change that are not wanted by local people but are essentially irresistible (e.g. the level of housing growth established in the higher Local Plan). Help will often also be needed in brokering agreement when there are differing local opinions on other key issues, even where there are no ‘external pressures’.
f) A willing local authority is an essential ingredient of success. So much is dependent on the co-operation, resources and, indeed, ‘moral support’ of the relevant professional officers and elected members, that the failure of the latter to participate beyond the minimum required could easily see the efforts of local people frustrated and ultimately wasted.
g) Defining a neighbourhood in geographic terms can be problematical. A ‘red line’ has to be drawn. While those outside may feel excluded, expanding the area covered by the Plan can mean it is not really a ‘neighbourhood’ in any recognisable common definition of that word. The larger the area, the greater the number of people and issues involved, and the greater the difficulty of achieving consensus.
This list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it does contains the most important factors that have become lodged in my consciousness over the past year and a half. Bearing them in mind, I’m not at all surprised that the country’s first Neighbourhood Plan arose from circumstances that almost epitomise the phrase ‘Small is Beautiful’.
Upper Eden has an electorate of around 4,300, a total population of roughly 1,000 more, and consists of a central market town and its natural hinterland. It is, in other words, an area that is readily identifiable as a community – not a bit of one, or the intersection of several; and the issues that the Plan addresses are correspondingly few and focused – there being just seven policies, six of which relate directly to future housing (the other to communications technology). Thus the success in Upper Eden tends to confirm the view that I’ve developed from experience elsewhere: the task of Neighbourhood Planning task is typically more straightforward the smaller the neighbourhood in question.
This is by no means to belittle the efforts of all involved in enabling Upper Eden to make history. Nor is it to say that Neighbourhood Planning for larger and/or more complex areas is not a worthy enterprise. Very far from it. It is, however, to observe that for robust Neighbourhood Plans to come forward from communities that are more populous, more diverse, and subject to a broader range of future challenges than Upper Eden will require more time, more resources and, in addition to this toil, almost certainly more blood, tears and sweat.