Town planning: new research

Neighbourhood watch

27 July 2018

The use of neighbourhood plans by town and parish councils in rural England varies significantly, so Louise Cashmore and Katharine Foot carried out research in Northamptonshire to find what influences take-up

Neighbourhood planning was introduced in England by the Localism Act 2011, and offered a new opportunity for communities to develop policies that, following approval in a referendum, come into force as part of a local plan.

In rural areas, it is town and parish councils that exercise neighbourhood planning rights; in rural Northamptonshire, however, only 25% of such councils had officially engaged with neighbourhood planning at the time we conducted our research last year.

Northamptonshire is a county of average geographical size, and its two-tier governance structure allowed for comparisons to be made between communities in different local authority areas. Using the Rural Urban Classification produced by the government, 268 Northamptonshire towns and parishes were identified as being 'rural'. A questionnaire was sent to 267 town and parish councils, and 57 replied. Of these, 49% had had experience of the neighbourhood planning process, while 51% had not.

Research results

Volunteer time was found to be the key factor behind both initial engagement and progress in neighbourhood planning, but the second factor influencing engaged communities was their lack of knowledge and skill. By contrast, towns and parishes with no experience of neighbourhood planning were not particularly concerned about the latter.

This disparity perhaps indicates the success of government rhetoric in presenting neighbourhood planning as an opportunity that is accessible to all communities; but, once they have started on the process, communities still feel that a knowledge gap significantly curbs their progress. These findings demonstrate the need for community members to have sufficient time and expertise to complete the various stages of the process, and raises questions about the best way to support them.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents who had prior experience of planning at community level, for example with parish plans or village design statements, were involved in neighbourhood planning

According to 96% of respondents their parish or town council had initiated involvement in neighbourhood planning. This indicates that having an existing governance structure in place before considering neighbourhood planning can enable the social collaboration needed to get started.

A relationship was also identified between localities’ previous involvement in community-led planning initiatives and the likelihood of their participation in neighbourhood planning. Seventy-one per cent of respondents who had prior experience of planning at community level, for example with parish plans or village design statements, were involved in neighbourhood planning.

Similarly, of those not involved in neighbourhood planning, 55% reported that they had not participated in any other form of community-led planning, which reinforces findings from previous academic studies.

Council contribution

The study also sought to understand how external factors had influenced decisions and progress in rural communities. In particular, the role of local planning authorities was addressed, because their involvement in neighbourhood planning has been characterised in other research as having varying significance and consistency nationally. In Northamptonshire there were likewise differing attitudes to the support of the local authority: while 89% agreed they had received adequate support, levels of satisfaction differed between separate district and borough councils.

These satisfaction levels also appear to be reflected in the proportion of neighbourhood development plans that had been completed, or 'made', by September 2017. For example, the Borough Council of Wellingborough, where levels of satisfaction with support from the local planning authority were highest, had the largest proportion of neighbourhood development plans that had gone beyond the stage of being designated neighbourhood areas, effectively the first step of the process. This suggests a relationship between the support from local planning authorities and the progress made by communities, thus stressing the importance of councils in enabling neighbourhood planning.

Communities’ consultants

The availability of external support to assist neighbourhood planning was also perceived as significant by communities that had become involved. Fifty-two per cent stated that they had used more than one support mechanism, with the most popular of these resources being access to grant aid.

One of the main uses of such aid was hiring external planning consultants. This is perhaps unsurprising given the complexity of the planning system and the need for communities to produce documentation that is sufficiently robust to withstand scrutiny at the independent examination stage.

The importance of external planning consultants cannot be underestimated, and their support has been key to many communities’ success. However, this also raises questions about how easy it is to ensure that neighbourhood planning truly reflects the desires of all community members. Other researchers have suggested that involving external planning consultants can increase the number of influential participants, and therefore risks devolving decision-making too far from the community themselves. Despite this, our study suggests that consultants play a crucial role in neighbourhood planning, with one parish clerk noting that 'the main reason [they] were able to complete the neighbourhood plan process was due to the engagement of an external consultancy who had the expertise to guide [them]'.

Eighty-two per cent of the respondents who had experience of neighbourhood planning stated that they would recommend the initiative to another parish or town, and even 75% of respondents who had had no experience of neighbourhood planning agreed that the process could be a beneficial tool for local communities

In addition, the introduction of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 has given new weight to draft plans and neighbourhood development plans and orders in an attempt to speed up the process. While welcomed in some areas, this legislation also raises questions about whether it will result in an even greater reliance on external planning professionals, to ensure that the respective documents are robust enough to hold weight.

Central government has committed an estimated £22.5m between 2015 and 2018 for local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning groups. However, the cost of financing a neighbourhood plan remained a concern among some community groups. Thirteen per cent of respondents with experience of neighbourhood planning thought that external finance and funding had affected their progress.

The same percentage of respondents without prior experience of neighbourhood planning argued that having increased funding and financial incentives to participate would alter their decision to engage in future. This was further supported by 48% of respondents who had no prior experience of neighbourhood planning agreeing that concerns over the cost of producing a neighbourhood plan had influenced their decision not to get involved.

At the time of writing, there have been no announcements for funding beyond this year, and it remains to be seen whether any amendments will be made to the currently available financing. Ultimately, neighbourhood planning is still little researched and the effectiveness of funding is undocumented. While central government has put into effect a series of funding support mechanisms and amendments over recent years, it is not yet known whether and what changes will be made to ensure that the process is both more technically and financially viable for communities.

The future

As at September 2017, 75% of rural towns and parishes in Northamptonshire were yet to undertake neighbourhood planning, with 61% of communities that had embarked on the process only having got as far as registering as a designated neighbourhood area. Despite this, our questionnaire suggests that there is still an appetite for engagement in the initiative. Eighty-two per cent of the respondents who had experience of neighbourhood planning stated that they would recommend the initiative to another parish or town, and even 75% of respondents who had had no experience of neighbourhood planning agreed that the process could be a beneficial tool for local communities.

Clearly the research suggests that there is scope for improving the system. Both internal and external factors account for current limited levels of take-up of neighbourhood planning and it is hoped that the 2017 act will help to address some of the issues. Further research is thus necessary to record experiences of the process nationally and improve understanding of how to support communities in putting their evident enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning into practice.

Louise Cashmore is a graduate surveyor with Strutt & Parker and Katharine Foot MRICS is a senior lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University

Further information

  • This research was undertaken by Louise Cashmore for her dissertation on the MSc Rural Estate Management at the Royal Agricultural University. She developed and carried out the project under the supervision of Katharine Foot. Thanks are extended to the councils who provided information for the research.
  • Related competencies include: Planning
  • This feature was taken from the RICS Land journal (July/August 2018)
  • Related categories include: Neighbourhood planning