Community Involvement in Local Planning: More Information needed

While there has been much furore over the National Planning Policy Framework, equally significant are changes via the Localism bill, such as the introduction of neighbourhood plans; and the enthusiasm to involve local communities in the planning process – which is part of the “Big Society” thing, I guess.

West Dorset district, where I live, was chosen to be a pilot area for this new approach to developing the local plan with community engagement. As I am interested in planning, community involvement, the environment, and so on, I signed up to be involved.

Last Thursday I went along to a working group whose job was to answer the question “what is the right level of growth for West Dorset?”. This is a possibly the key question for the Plan writers to get to grips with, I thought. At the workshop it became clear that the follow-on question being asked was “how many houses should be built in West Dorset, and how many of them should be affordable?”

Given West Dorset’s amazing array of environmental constraints, from World Heritage Site down to Areas of Attractive Landscape, and the now legendary failure within the NPPF to define Sustainable Development,  I suggested that a more pertinent question to look at would be “what would sustainable development look like in West Dorset” and “what is the carrying capacity of West Dorset” in terms of natural resources and infrastructure.

The people on the working group, who all evidently felt that it was important to attend and give views were:  3 planning consultants, representing various local landowners; two District Councillors (one from the planning committee); a local landowner who also owns holiday homes; a retired planning design academic; a Parish Councillor who is also a housing consultant, and me. I was the only member of the community, who wasnt also a councillor, attending. Also in attendance were the senior planning officer working on the core strategy, and the facilitator.

Actually the discussion was open and interesting, and although there was a clear bias towards the housing/development industry, the planning consultants made useful positive contributions, as well as obviously representing their clients interests.

We did spend far too long talking about affordable housing and whether the people on the waiting list should actually be on the list, or whether they were signed up to be on more than one waiting list etc etc. This is a rather sterile argument in my view as West Dorset is one of the least affordable places to live in the UK, in terms of average house prices and average take home pay.

That West Dorset needs more affordable homes is not in question; what is in question is how many people/housing units can West Dorset support, where will their occupants work, where will their children go to school, and how far is it to the nearest shop/hospital etc. And what is more sustainable – in-fill development in many villages or creating a new settlement.

Some members of the group challenged the validity of using statistics eg on demographic change, supplied by the Office for National statistics. One planning consultant suggested qualitative information derived from surveys asking people questions such as “where do you want to live” would be more useful than official statistics!

Information is undoubtedly key to preparing a robust plan and knowing where that information presides, and how to access it is essential for informed debate. I suspect the forward planners are better placed to know where the information is, how to access it and interpret it, than the average person on the street. And it is this issue which I think will limit the capacity for lay people to actively engage in the debates around forward planning, at least in an informed way that looks at all the complex elements of sustainability, rather than being bogged down in the detail around a small number of high profile issues.

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The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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2 Responses to Community Involvement in Local Planning: More Information needed

  1. Tony Morton says:

    An interesting article. As a now retired town planner, who has been visiting West Dorset for decades and greatly values its landscape and wildlife, I can see the issues. At least I have not contributed to the housing problems by buying a ‘holiday home’ in the area, I have never had that kind of money. So I just visit when I can afford it and contribute something to the tourist economy. I wonder how many houses in attractive holiday areas like West Dorset would become available if the ownership of second homes was banned?

    It is now all about carrying capacity, and the studies of our “Ecological Footprint” fostered by the United Nations have been telling us for over a decade that we are over-exploiting the resources of the planet. I think the figures for the UK are that we have an ecological footprint equating to about 4 or 5 times our available share; if the whole world lived the way that the UK does we would need 4 to 5 planets to support us, and as the saying goes, “There is only one Earth”. Being overdrawn at the ecological bank is as serious as being overdrawn at the financial bank, probably more so in fact.

    Your experience at the consultation meeting is also typical of the true level of involvement of the public in planning matters. Most people are far too busy living their life and trying to survive, rather than spend time in endless meetings which never deliver what they promise. So those kind of events always end up as a lobbying session for vested interests, and their expensive consultants. And all the rhetoric about “Localism”, “Big Society”, and “Local Democracy” is just fanciful nonsense. Frankly it seems to me that it just a smokescreen to enable the dismantling of the planning system, which has always been seen by business interests as limiting their ability to exploit more resources and make more money.

    But if we believe the Ecological Footprint calculation, the only true level of sustainable development now is less than we are currently using; not more growth but using less. I can’t see anyone voluntarily accepting less than they have now, the international fight over carbon dioxide levels demonstrates that. I think we are in for a difficult future.

  2. milesking says:

    Thanks for your comment Tony. I agree with much of what you say. Interesting that SoS Pickles has recently announced local authorities are now free to remove the 50% discount on second homes’ council tax. Whether that will make any real difference to the housing market I have my doubts. Much stronger medicine is needed.

    As far as the public consultation goes, my sympathies lie with the planners. Not only do they have the unenviable task of preparing plans that will of course please no-one, but now the public are invited to get involved – at least the vested interests understand how to play the game.

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