By guest blogger Monimbo.
Inside Housing carries a story about a new guide to Making the Most of Community Led Planning, promoted by the DCLG and created by two pressure groups working in rural areas and in market towns. Without disparaging the work of ACRE and Action for Market Towns, with their rural focus it is perhaps not surprising that the groups involved in this exercise seem to be solely from County Council areas. There is no representation from inner city areas or, indeed, outer ones. The guide carries the endorsement of the minister for decentralisation, Greg Clark, with no mention of its rural bias, and yet it was part financed from the DCLG’s empowerment fund.
The minister hails the guide as helping ‘local people’ exercise the right to prepare a ‘neighbourhood plan’ under the Localism Bill. It strikes me that the guide is an unintentional reminder of how vacuous such plans may turn out to be. There is only the
vaguest discussion of resources, delicate issues like building more local housing are touched on only briefly, and there appear to be very few examples of what neighbourhood plans can actually achieve – surprising given that more than 4,000 community led plans are apparently already in existence.
One gets the impression that neighbourhood plans are intended to be about minor issues that can be readily tackled by parish councils. I looked eagerly, but in vain, for an example of a community that championed the need for more rural housing, overcame local opposition and built some affordable homes using a local housing association. Perhaps they exist – but they are not mentioned here.
You will also look in vain in the guide for any mention of ethnic minorities. There are several references to community plans being ‘inclusive’, but no examples of what this means. As we know, in many rural areas there are marginalised communities who might well miss out on this sort of ‘community led’ planning if it fails to involve them. For example, many of the issues about the housing of migrant workers have cropped up in rural authorities like Breckland in Norfolk and Kerrier in Cornwall, where migrants provide the labour for the ‘pick, pack and pluck’ trades. Is their housing an issue which might be examined in community led plans, or is it better brushed under the carpet?
Community led planning is a good idea, and I would be surprised if many of the projects championed by ACRE and AMT aren’t good examples of rural communities getting things done. But there are dangers if this becomes the exclusive vision for neighbourhood planning, and more widely for the government’s ambition (repeated by Greg Clark) of replacing ‘big state’ with the ‘big society’. There are some advantages to the state: it is open to lobbying, it is governed by equality laws, it has elected councillors and – even in troubled times – it has real resources and statutory powers to use them. If neighbourhood plans are to work properly, they must be about delivering real change in real communities where all groups are involved. And this must include challenging inner city areas, neglected outer estates, and hard-to-reach groups in both.
Neighbourhood plans that merely sustain a comforting image of rural and small-town life will not fit the bill.