Just as communications companies rightly advise developers to engage local stakeholders early and thoroughly, the Government here wants to capitalise on the good sense of enabling and encouraging grass roots buy-in for development even before specific schemes have left the architects’ computer programmes.
Planning remains the most contentious matter overseen by local councils. And rightly so, if the competing and sometimes conflicting needs of developers, local residents and wider stakeholders are to be met and balanced.
Writing as a former councillor, I can attest to the passions that planning matters provoke, despite the reasonable defence that objections have to meet strict criteria.
And with planning departments stretched and pressure to build mounting, it surely makes sense to minimise conflict by having local people set their priorities for development within their neighbourhoods.
The intention – to turn Nimbys into Yimbys (yes, in my back yard!) makes complete sense, both on practical grounds and also philosophically: it matches the political vogue for decentralisation and devolution.
And since the first wave of legislation under the Coalition in 2011 over 350 Neighbourhood Plans have been drawn up.
This sounds impressive and yet I have reservations.
We all know that good communications have to be authentic and there is the danger here that, however well intentioned, neighbourhood plans can seem like yet another insincere sop designed to create a more benign environment for developers by ironing out objections before schemes are even drawn up.
Equally, developers might fear that, by their nature, these plans initiated by a self-selecting group of residents will build resistance to change into the system.
It’s reasonable to assume that people going to the trouble of volunteering to draw up these plans might be more concerned about the principle of development than the passive majority who are only motivated to get involved when their own property is directly affected.
For all these reasons the current bill to beef up Neighbourhood Planning by obligating local authorities to publicise the opportunities more widely, to encourage greater engagement with residents and stakeholders and to devote more resources to the necessary professional assistance, are all to be welcomed.
Whatever the pitfalls, there are more positives than not in at least giving communities the option to become more involved in shaping their neighbourhoods.
And, given the passion with which so many people have embraced the virtual planning game of Minecraft (above), it’s helpful that there are many similar modelling tools out there that might just entice more of us to get planning the real world.
Jo-Anne Nadler is a director at Champollion
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