Responding to Localism: Part 1
So far on this website there has been some discussion on the Big Society and what building it means for those involved in the delivery and regulation of change and development. This is an attempt to connect some of the lines of thought already developed here and explore what it may mean to practice urban design and undertake development in the UK within the framework of localism. I will attempt to steer away from the political discussion as much as I can and focus on the direct links of this policy shift with the management and development of the built environment.
The Localism Bill sets out to, among a series of other things, “reform the planning system to make it more democratic and more effective” (DCLG, 2010). Whilst within the old system community consultation and engagement had mainly focused on allowing the public to comment on proposals which were put forward by government, regional and local authorities, with their comments being then fed back into policies and development frameworks, the new system aims at having community groups actually developing these, bottom up. At the same time, regional frameworks have been scrapped, leaving in place only central government guidance. As far as I understand, the principle of building sustainable communities remains at the core of the planning system, although the focus has shifted towards the way in which development is delivered and controlled as opposed to what the overall objectives may be to achieve them.
An important element the Bill introduces is the right for communities to develop their own Neighbourhood Plans (note it is not an obligation) to steer development in their local area. These plans need to be in line both with national policy and the corresponding local authority’s overall vision with the area, and then need to be approved by a referendum by the wider community.
So, how do communities go about developing Neighbourhood Plans? First of all I will accept the premise that nobody knows a neighbourhood better that those that live within it, and the fact it is in their best interests to have this neighbourhood developed and be managed in the best possible way puts them in the best position to make the decisions. On that basis I think there is great value on having members of the community taking the initiative, even though I can also think of a number of drawbacks.
Two particular previous posts highlight some of the issues that could come about as communities begin to draw the lines for different types of development. By focusing on a couple of particular issues (in these cases sex establishments and betting shops), they illustrate how complex the management of neighbourhood development is, and how difficult to predict effects of particular policies can be. Moreover, what is bad for a particular group of people may not necessarily be seen in the same way by another section of the same community, and politicians may have an altogether different agenda on the same issue. There isn’t any reason to think the group of volunteers taking over the creation of neighbourhood plans will be particularly prepared or informed on how to go about this task, so this may offer opportunities for urban designers, planners, architects and other professionals to get involved.
Now, the government has allowed a sum of money to fund Neighbourhood Plans, which could either come from those developments that gain permission through being part of a Neighbourhood Development Order (particular developments identified and promoted by community groups), or directly assisted by the Secretary of State. However, as there is no guarantee NDO development will actually take place; there can be no guarantee of funding from this channel. As for to the possible financial assistance by the government, which ever the vehicle may be, is unclear how significant it will be at a time when budgets are being cut back. So, whilst there are plenty of opportunities for community inclined and entrepreneurial professionals within this Neighbourhood Plan initiative, I am not sure how the straightforward model of working as consultants will work in the majority of cases.
There is currently a climate of thinking and exploration, talk and evidence of a paradigm shift in how we do urban design. If traditionally we had been following the route down from policy to developer aspiration down into the ground, often at big scales, now we are having to think of starting at the other end, which will often result in a collection of small moves that connect various different groups of people and their aspirations.
On one hand, I think these are exciting times for urban designers (and all the other related professionals), an opportunity to reconnect with the people that inhabit the places we design at a whole new level. It’s not about getting communities to ‘buy in’ to proposals what have been developed by outsiders (no matter how great their expertise), but to unearth the real opportunities hidden within each community, by working alongside them. I think that expertise will be essential if this is to be achieved.
On the other hand, I wonder about the practicalities of making all of this work. I don’t for a minute believe the government has thought these things through – and it feels a bit rushed to throw away the ‘old’ frameworks (that weren’t even that old), to replace them with something that we are yet to understand and isn’t fully developed. I think the principle of simplifying the planning system is a good one, as we all want development (good development, that is) to happen and not be blocked by nimbys and red tape – but I understand why some people worry this is precisely what is not going to happen.
It’s all up for discussion. Do we need a paradigm shift? I think we do (and will explore in another post), but you may not agree. Many questions remain, but questioning is a good thing. Localism, at least, if forcing us to think things through.