Community Planning and the Neighbourhood-Back to real planning?

April 26, 2013

The introduction, under the Localism Act in England, of neighbourhood planning has possibly come at an ideal time from an Irish perspective. Traditionally, never an appropriate system worth considering in public service reform given the scale and centrality of Whitehall in policy development, England has become a laboratory which just might prove interesting as the challenge to plan more locally becomes central to the future of local communities across the Republic.

This is of course somewhat ironic as indeed English centralisation was actually, in fact and notwithstanding its inappropriateness, the public service model which did inform thinking traditionally in Ireland!

So as England begins to move towards neighbourhood planning why is it, all of a sudden, a model worth looking at? In the first instance is the realisation that policy for large cities should be different from that pertaining in smaller and rural communities. The one size fits all model never worked anywhere and Britain has at last now come to this realisation.

Indeed the same might be said of the Irish authorities with the recognition that Dublin deserves to be treated in policy terms differently from the rest of the country, at least when it comes to local government reform, if not reform generally!

More particularly is the shift towards citizen driven policy development at the local level which marks an historic turnaround in England, something which no doubt must be causing some grief to Whitehall and presumably the Houses of Parliament.

Essentially since April 2012 local communities in England have been enabled, through their parish council structures to produce neighbourhood plans for their local area. So communities, similar to those envisaged within the municipal structures in Ireland and below that level (critically), will be able to put in place planning policies for their future sustainable development.

These plans are to create the platform for local public service delivery and are placed within a planning hierarchy which reaches to the national level. Thinking along these lines was a feature of the Green Paper on Local Government Reform produced, but not acted upon, by the last Government in Ireland. Such thinking would seem to be a central feature of the move towards municipal structures under current local government reforms in Ireland.

The shift to such thinking, in the Irish case, may be fortuitous or may actually reflect a clear understanding of such moves internationally but it is nonetheless great timing as negotiations with other member states on CAP Reform and other reform proposals on social and regional policy take place under the Irish Presidency of the European Union.

A further useful aspect to the move to neighbourhood plans, and indeed community planning in Scotland, is that there is now extensive resources available through the national departments in both England and Scotland which can be looked at as processes develop in Ireland. The Guidelines for such planning, for example, in both England and Scotland, are easy to follow and are clearly relevant to the Irish case.

Taking a strategic local perspective is, of course, not alien to the Irish environment given on-going efforts in Counties such as Mayo, Limerick and Offaly and others to roll out various models in local planning. The difference is that in England there is now a statutory underpinning of such planning backed up by very real resources and political commitment.

No matter how committed local authorities, the local development sector and other local agencies, are to community based planning platforms in Ireland, in the absence of integrated thinking at national level what the local voice could achieve was very restricted, something acknowledged by the alignment process and Putting People First.

A really key feature of English neighbourhood planning is that specific planning decisions and policy development will be guided by the community plans giving them real bite at local level. Equally, the spatial dimensions in the plans will not occur in isolation from developmental planning by both local and national authorities.

It is envisaged that the neighbourhood plans will underpin funding applications. In addition, they will also provide the policy platform for other aspects of the Localism Agenda such as allowing communities to apply community right to build orders or actually to take on a planning approval role within the framework of unitary authority planning policy.

Worth thinking about this side of the Irish Sea!