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Neighbourhood planning: the London experience

Author: Tony Burton, Neighbourhood Planners London

The power to create neighbourhood plans was introduced by the Localism Act 2011. Hence, it is eight years since the first pioneering communities exercised their rights to produce such plans.

“Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area. They are able to choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, have their say on what those new buildings should look like and what infrastructure should be provided, and grant planning permission for the new buildings they want to see go ahead. Neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to plan for the types of development to meet their community’s needs and where the ambition of the neighbourhood is aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area.”

GOV.UK, official definition of neighbourhood planning

Neighbourhood planning has been popular, evidenced in strong take-up, and testifying to the energy and commitment of the large numbers of local volunteers who lead the vast majority of neighbourhood planning nationally. Despite the complexity of planning in London and the additional requirement, to set up new neighbourhood forums to take on the task here, the capital has played a strong role in the growth of the neighbourhood planning movement.

Neighbourhood Planners.London is the volunteer-led network for neighbourhood planners in the capital. With support from Trust for London, we have now published new research by Publica on London’s experience, focused on the potential for less well advantaged communities.

Over 120 London communities have explored neighbourhood planning and 79 neighbourhood forums have been designated – the first formal step in the process, when the geographic area to be covered is agreed with local councils. 13 forums now have completed the full process to create a plan, and the number of completed plans is accelerating. Neighbourhood plans have to be agreed through local referenda, and plans have a clear-cut, strongly positive success rate. Yet despite this momentum, there are still nine boroughs classified as “deserts” without any registered forums, and it is taking 49 months on average for forums to take a plan from designation to referendum. London faces a growing number of forums becoming stuck after designation, and the number of new forums coming on-stream has declined from a peak of 18 to two per year.

A map demonstrating the boroughs in London which have initiated Neighbourhood plans

The geography of neighbourhood planning in the capital presents a complex picture. There is no clear correlation with levels of deprivation, home ownership or the political party in charge of local councils. Neighbourhood planning is being implemented in a wide variety of places, including some of the least advantaged. Neighbourhood Planners.London’s research examines the story of seven of these less advantaged areas.

The findings show that civic-minded volunteers in lower-income areas are using neighbourhood planning to make a real difference.

Neighbourhood planning brings communities together and inspires projects and initiatives to improve the local quality of life, adding easily as much value as the policies in a neighbourhood plan.

Too often, though, neighbourhood planners face unnecessary obstacles and a lack of support from established institutions. There are lessons in their experiences for the Mayor, London Councils, Central Government and the councillors and officers in London’s boroughs.

The report recommends that Central Government’s support programme for neighbourhood planning should adapt to make sure the funds and support it provides are adequate, effectively used and reach all neighbourhoods. The right of neighbourhood forums to access additional funds and support should be restored. Local communities need more incentives to support them at different stages on the, often long, road to producing a neighbourhood plan. They also need more direct influence over spending some of the funds generated by the Community Infrastructure Levy on the development that follows.

Neighbourhood planning has overcome initial scepticism from opposition political parties, and is now part of the mainstream.

The time has come for planning professionals and local politicians, in London as elsewhere, to embrace its potential to improve planning for the future.

Neighbourhood Planners.London has produced two research reports undertaken by Publica with the support of Trust for London: 'Neighbourhood Planning in London: Investigating its Potential in Areas Experiencing High Levels of Deprivation' and 'The State of Neighbourhood Planning in London 2018/19'.