Plan your Neighbourhood

An event on Wednesday 27 June 2012 at Oxford Town Hall.

4 July 2012

Wednesday 27 June 2012, Oxford Town Hall

Neighbourhood planning is rather like Everest: a seemingly formidable challenge, not for the faint hearted, but potentially very rewarding if you make it to the summit. This appeared to be the feeling of some at least of the seventy four participants at the end of the “Plan Your Neighbourhood” event jointly organised by the Civic Society, Oxford Brookes and Oxford City Council at the Town Hall on the evening of Wednesday 27 June.

The Localism Act opens up some potentially exciting new opportunities for neighbourhoods to influence the physical planning policies affecting their area. These include a “community right to buy” and to make “neighbourhood development orders” affecting particular sites; more about these later. The main focus of the evening was on the new powers for neighbourhoods to produce Development Plans (“neighbourhood plans” for short).

As with Everest, neighbourhood planning has its equivalents of Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing, though they are more numerous. With the help of grants of £20,000 each from the Government, some 260 neighbourhoods across England are already “front runners” ascending the foothills. A few of them have made even faster progress, though most are some way off the summit and unlikely to reach it until 2013.

At the event, we heard about three interesting and contrasting examples: Thame (ably represented my Councillor Mike Dyer), where an ambitious plan is taking shape that will if successful allow the distribution of housing and retail development to take place over the next 15 years in a way that reflects the views of local people; Woodcote, a small village between Reading and Wallingford, where a group of 15 volunteers is preparing a neighbourhood plan for the parish, focusing on housing; and St James Ward in Exeter, where a wide ranging plan is taking shape potentially affecting the environment, open spaces and sensitive development sites, to mention but three areas. St James sounded particularly interesting because of its urban character and proximity to Exeter University – some parallels with certain Oxford neighbourhoods, perhaps?

We heard from Dr Sue Brownill of Oxford Brookes University about the steps involved in putting together a plan – defining a neighbourhood, forming a neighbourhood forum where no parish exists, actively consulting the community about their issues and priorities, gathering the evidence, formulating options and developing a plan. Sue emphasised that communities should carefully explore whether a neighbourhood plan is the best way forward compared to other alternatives that are available.

Michael Crofton-Briggs, Head of City Development, spoke about the legal ground rules for neighbourhood planning. Plans must be in line with national and local planning policies, including the Oxford Local Plan. The plans cannot be used to block new development envisaged in the Local Plan, but – as in Thame and Woodcote – they can be used to influence the type, design, location and mix of new development. Michael also outlined the later steps in the process: an independent examination, referendum and, if both of these are passed successfully, coming into force with the same legal status as the Local Plan. The City Council will shortly be publishing a Protocol intended to help neighbourhoods understand the available choices and the support on offer from the City Council. Finally, Michael told us that Headington, Wolvercote Common and Summertown are exploring the idea of neighbourhood planning and four other areas are actively considering the options.

In the next session each table was asked to address questions relating to neighbourhood and community planning and report back using flipchart sheets. A summary of responses from the table discussion groups is in the Appendix.
In the final Question Time session, the speakers were joined by City Council Leader Cllr Bob Price. Plenty of challenging issues were raised. How, in Oxford, most parts of which are not parishes, should a neighbourhood be defined? Where were the resources to come from? Would neighbourhood plans be needed if city planners consulted communities more closely? Invited to suggest ideas for the new community right to buy and neighbourhood development orders, two quickly emerged from the floor – a certain pub and a celebrated boatyard. Watch this space!


Summary of Responses from the Table Discussion Groups

Following the speaker presentations, the table groups were asked to address particular questions. This summary outlines their responses.

The big issues

The discussions revealed concerns about a range of “big issues”: affordable housing; the competition for sites to satisfy housing (including student housing), higher education, NHS and other needs; employment opportunities; transport and traffic problems; unsympathetic retail developments (and in some areas the lack of any local shops). Some of these, such as transport, were clearly seen as operating at a higher level than neighbourhoods, while others, such as problems generated by students, were seen as suitable for neighbourhoods to come together to make their voices heard.

What role for Neighbourhood Plans?

Neighbourhoods such as Wolvercote had already decided to pursue the neighbourhood plan option as a way of dealing with a particular local issue. Some participants expressed scepticism about whether the effort needed to do a neighbourhood plan would be worthwhile. From some, there was a sense of defeat, of powerlessness to prevent or reverse changes, such as the increase in houses in multiple occupation or rampant commercial development, that had already seemingly achieved an unstoppable momentum.

How to define a Neighbourhood geographically?

The Government had left this question open to local decision. Some parts of Oxford were by common consent not easily divisible into discrete neighbourhoods. Trying to divide them up risked leaving out people who might be impacted. Often, boundaries developed for particular purposes such as school catchments or electoral wards did not define neighbourhoods. There were no easy answers, but one approach was to gauge how far people were concerned by the same issues. To keep a plan manageable it would be advisable to limit the number of issues to be tackled as well as not attempting too wide a geographical area.

The practicalities

Participants were under no illusions about the challenges of creating a Neighbourhood Forum: some communities would not have the people skills; and communities in general would be challenged to find the financial resources. Transitory residents, who were significant in some areas, lacked the motivation to get involved. On the other hand, Oxford neighbourhoods often had people with the relevant leadership qualities, high level skills and local knowledge. But they would need to be persuaded of the value of creating a plan as the volunteers mentioned in the Woodcote and Exeter case studies had been. Provided that the plan had been genuinely developed reflecting local concerns and backed by good evidence, there was no reason why it should not succeed in achieving the simple majority in a referendum.

The advantages of being a parish

Most of Oxford does not have parishes. Yet several table groups noted the advantages of parishes for facilitating neighbourhood planning. They had legally recognised status, permanence and the ability to raise and handle funds. New parishes were being created in urban Milton Keynes. Why not Oxford?

The role of Oxford City Council

There was praise for the City’s Area Action Plans and a welcome for the Protocol due to be published shortly explaining the support available from the City Council. Yet the City already had difficulty in enforcing existing planning decisions: how would it cope with a new role?

Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Buy

As some of the details of these new powers have still to be announced, it is too early to be sure of how they will work. However, participants suggested a number of potential candidates in Oxford – community facilities, a pub and a boatyard – which could be eligible.

Clive Booth

Vice Chair, Oxford Civic Society

3 July 2012