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Shaping your built environment

David King, innovation lead at Local Trust, outlines how Big Local areas can take the lead in shaping the neighbourhood around them.

“The developers come to us now”. For communities trying to work with house builders or grappling with estate regeneration, it may come as a surprise that there are neighbourhoods that have turned the tables, and play a leading role in shaping the built environment. Perhaps it is even more surprising that some of these communities have emerged in Big Local areas, which have had lower community capacity in the past.

Keen to learn how this was possible, Big Local’s from across the country met at a recent December event to learn about how Lawrence Weston and Growing Together had improved their areas with neighbourhood plans.

After the community college closed in Lawrence Weston, residents looked for the tools that would help them improve their area. £1million from Big Local only goes so far, so a team of residents started to develop a neighbourhood plan.

Under the Localism Act 2011, communities have the power to produce planning policies that are then enforced alongside plans made by Local Authorities. They may also receive funds from developers who want to build in their area. The idea is for communities to proactively shape the built environment, rather than wait for planning officers, stretched on time and resources, to consult them when sites are being chosen for housebuilding, new businesses, and so on. It can be a long and complex process, but Big Local’s have a head start: their neighbourhood boundary is defined, they have connections with the community and even the foundation of an evidence base.

Lawrence Weston created planning policies that would promote better quality housing, incentivise a supermarket to come to the area, protect community spaces and, most controversially, change the social housing allocation policy to prioritise prospective tenants who live, or have a connection to, the area. While not a normal planning policy, Lawrence Weston pushed the limits and were rewarded.

Growing Together’s plan emerged from a different context. The Local Authority approached the group and asked if they were interested in producing a neighbourhood plan. Attracted by the powers available, and the chance to work constructively with the Local Authority, the group developed four questions to shape the consultation:

  1. What space do you want to protect?
  2. What space do you want to improve?
  3. What space do you want to change?
  4. What activities do we need to find space for?

Since getting their plan approved, the group have intervened on a number of schemes and planning officers in the council are able to plan with their preferences in mind.

The planning system can be baffling. Peter from Growing Together spoke of the overly complex planning language, or ‘Plangalese’. Thankfully, there’s considerable support available from DCLG, delivered by Locality (around £15,000 for most Big Locals) and with the benefits available, it something Big Locals may want to explore.