Good work in the ’hood

Only design can excite locals and get them involved in improving their areas

Neighbourhood planning is the ‘poster-child’ of the new planning system. It puts the local community in the driving seat and enables it to influence the scale, location, form and ­supporting services for local development. 

If plans have the buy-in of the comm­unity at large (via a referendum), and conform to general planning objectives, they will be brought into force by the local authority and become part of the development plan for that area. But so far, only three neighbourhood plans have cleared the referendum process. 

A report for Defra into front runners in rural neighbourhood planning, by engineer­ing and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, includes case studies and ‘top tips’ that ­communities considering neighbourhood planning can consult.  

Having led the research, I am heartened that so many communities are interested in planning and the wider place-making ­agenda. I originally feared it would be no more than a charter for nimbyism and a barrier to new homes. Certainly, that wasn’t the intention of the government, which believes involvement will make a local community more likely to welcome growth and new development. 

In some places, this is exactly what is ­happening. In Thame, South Oxfordshire, the spatial distribution of housing growth in the local plan has been reconsidered in the neighbourhood plan. In Upper Eden, Cumbria, the plan permits small scale housing development in villages, recognising that without it, a lack of homes for future generations will be detrimental to village life.

Demonstrating the art of the possible can help overcome fears about new homes

A key question remains: can neighbourhood planning help deliver the scale of growth required to meet housing need and demographic change? The rationale behind ­neighbourhood planning, and changes to the planning system as a whole, is a push for growth. Our work shows that while some communities are planning for new development, much is small scale and goes little ­beyond that already established in local plans. So it seems unlikely neighbourhood planning will seriously address the national housing shortage.

A change in mindset is needed. If we moved to a wider debate about the quality of place and the potential to effect positive change through appropriate new development, the proposition could become far more attractive. This is a challenge, but also an area where help and assistance can be provided to the community.

Issues such as density, grain, scale and ­adaptability, for example, are not always ­easily understood. A design-led approach can help communicate issues and opportunities and, more fundamentally, excite and engage. Demonstrating the art of the possible can help overcome fears about new homes, showing how well-designed development responds to local character, while supporting and sustaining a better public realm. 

Some professionals might be lucky enough to be employed to help do this. More likely, in my view, is the potential to contribute through community-led planning initiatives within our own neighbourhoods. Where resources are shared and the council acts in an enabling role, the result could be far greater than the sum of the parts. 


Jon Herbert is the spatial planning lead within the Place team at Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

See Rural Front Runners : http://bit.ly/XFbk6C