Having been involved in supporting and facilitating community led development over a number of years, I am still shocked by the animosity, contention and confrontation that often exists around planning decisions in many of our communities and how extremely detrimental this is. In this context, it is important to explore what opportunities neighbourhood planning offers communities and the potential of true engagement in community-led policy development.

Not only does the animosity, contention and confrontation around planning decisions divide and polarise opinion within a community it often leads to members of the same community ‘fighting’ against each other. Worse still I think it helps to prevent the development communities want to see from coming forward. As a result, all too often people feel and say that they have been ‘done unto’ when it comes to bringing development forward.

Set against the confrontation, a significant number of communities are voicing the need for affordable housing and a range of housing tenure options to meet the housing needs of their young, old and those that just want to continue to live in their community. The number that are clear that space for job creation and employment, new and improved open and green space and improvements in infrastructure are vital to their communities’ long term sustainability is also significant.

All this leads me to believe that all people want are places to live, work and play, rather than no development at all. In short they want the right form of development in the right places and which does not compromise their community or the future of their community.

Add to a communities feeling of being ‘done unto’, by planning and development, with the facts that many planning authorities are struggling with dwindling resources and that there is a growing shortage of right form of housing, and the conclusion I reach is that there is a need for a change in the way we seek to reach planning decision and bring forward development in all our communities.

Given the above, it’s interesting to note the continuing rise in interest in neighbourhood planning. Neighbourhood planning comes about as a result of The Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations made following the Localism Act 2011 – for more information have a look at neighbourhood-planning. Whereas planning policy making processes have previously been led by local authorities, these regulations allow communities to develop planning policy and proposals for improving their neighbourhood area through the preparation of Neighbourhood Development Plan. If these plans receive a 50% yes vote in a referendum they are then ‘made’ and become part of the adopted statutory development plan for the area (the Local Plan). This means that local authorities will take into account the policies set out in the Neighbourhood Development Plan when making planning decisions about the area.

Alongside my work in facilitating and supporting community led development I’ve also been involved in neighbourhood planning from the time of the frontrunners scheme in 2011. In the five years since around 2,000 communities have taken steps to designate their area and start to prepare plans, and the number of communities interested keeps growing. This is a phenomenal take up of an activity within communities that, whilst I believe is incredibly worthwhile, is voluntary, hard work and takes time.

In trying to understand the neighbourhood planning take up, I think one of the key reasons is that through the process of preparing a Neighbourhood Development Plan the local community gets ‘a seat at the table’. Neighbourhood Development Plans should look at all aspects of the area’s environment, economy, housing, community facilities and infrastructure, as they will be used to guide appropriate and high quality development that is locally (and globally) sustainable and suggest things that really need to be improved locally. What’s interesting is that to really have the discussions to determine how a neighbourhood meets these issues in a sustainable way, community members will need to work with and talk to the experts including those in the statutory agencies. Collecting the evidence and negotiating with the statutory agencies is therefore part of what neighbourhood planning is about and it means that planning policy, and hence future land use, are things that can be considered by local people not just planning experts.

Alongside the seat at the table, the process of preparation of neighbourhood plans also appears to have the potential to lead to greater community engagement and cohesion. A dialogue has to take place within the neighbourhood (community) between community members, as a result of the preparation of the plan. Given that plans can only be made if more that 50% of the electorate in the area vote ‘yes’ for the plan, the process of plan making is almost required to be based on consensus in many ways. Clearly whilst not everyone in a community will agree with the plan, in most places where referendum have been held (over 200) the majority do. The average referendum has to date returned a 89% yes vote, from an average turnout of 33% (the turn out figures are comparable to Local Elections). These figures tend to suggest people are engaging locally in preparation of planning policy and are reaching more of a consensus in so doing. So, the process of neighbourhood planning looks as though it may help to shift the balance away from communities feeling done unto in respect to the preparation of planning policy.

Of course, once made, Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDP) have statutory weight. This means they should also provide a greater degree of certainty about the scale and nature of development that can take place in a community. Now this is clearly the prize for local communities, but I think it should be equally (if not more) attractive to developers. Whilst this element of neighbourhood planning (engaging and negotiating with developers) is not without its challenges, there are many developers (particularly the smaller, medium sized and bespoke developers) who should begin to recognise that this type of certainty will mean a great degree of success for them and potentially less financial risk (no appeals etc. as a consequence of the community determining when and what development should take place). This should lead to better development in places where it’s wanted.

If you compare the need for a more inclusive way to develop planning policy, and to guide the way in which our communities are developed, to the emergence of neighbourhood planning, there appears to be an argument that neighbourhood planning will help to bring about the change that many people want to see. A move to a more inclusive, engaging and consensus driven processes. The question is: does it go far enough?

Eight years ago whilst completing some post graduate research I looked at the evidence that indicates that participatory involvement in policy development at the community level leads to a change in behaviour in favour of the policy. Some parts of this are worth considering again, at this point in time.


[1] (2005) argued that behavioural change in favour of sustainability has to be a social process, and that motivation for sustainable consumption must include building supportive communities, promoting inclusive societies, providing meaningful work and encouraging purposeful lives. Jackson (2005) notes that there is a need to research and explore how such community based participatory processes work by testing them in our communities.

As a methodology, participatory problem-solving, (helping people understand the issues and inviting them to explore possible solutions (Kaplan[2], 2000)) is worthy of further exploration. Participatory problem-solving is similar to a number of the more active participation methods. These are the methods or mechanisms that;

  1. Are inclusive, allowing all members of the public an opportunity to participate,
  2. Require active public input and are at the high level of empowerment end of the continuum – they are not just simple consultations,
  3. Offer extended involvement and promote active participation,
  4. Need to be well designed and facilitated,

Meanwhile, Myers and Macnaughten[3] (1998) suggested that people do not identify, or at least find it very difficult to identify, with global views and so will not engage in policy development that works at this level. However, the converse of this is also suggested. This means that people are able to identify with issues that affect them personally. The implication is that they will engage in very local policy development that supports them to resolve the issues that are pertinent to them locally. Planning and development has an effect, for good or bad, at the very local level.

Practically, what the research evidence argument suggests, is that policy that is developed by the community it seeks to serve (the bottom-up approach) may be more beneficial in supporting behaviour change than that which is developed without the engagement of local people. So, there is a need for processes that are more collaborative, inclusive and help build consensus and community when developing planning policy and determining where development goes, and these are needed at the very local level.

What all of this says to me is that neighbourhood planning is coming from the right place and could help provide an opportunity to change the way we seek to reach planning decisions and therefore bring forward development in all our communities. Whether it goes far enough is probably too soon to say for an initiative that’s only five years old. However, if we care about our communities, about where we live, work and play, then getting involved in neighbourhood planning appears to represent an opportunity for us to shape our communities. If we do then we will help to determine where development takes place in our community and are more likely to support the development (if not all then some!) that results, and we might end up feeling less done unto.



[1] Jackson, T. 2005. Motivating Sustainable Consumption – a review of evidence on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. Centre for Environmental Strategy. University of Surrey.

[2] Kaplan, S. 2000. Human Nature and Environmentally Responsible Behavior. Journal of Social Issues. 56, 3, 491-508.

[3] Myers G, Macnaghten P, 1998, “Rhetorics of environmental sustainability: commonplaces and places” Environment and Planning. 30, 2, 333 – 353.