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.