Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood Network (SUNN) (L 106)

Summary

This evidence is based on the experiences of a network of professionals developing new communities. The network was established and is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Examples illustrating key issues are given from around England. The paper notes the importance of ‘social infrastructure’ such as community centres to local well-being and interaction. It argues that for neighbourhood planning to be effective, it needs to be supported by a strategic framework of local authority and sub-regional planning which can ensure appropriate participation by relevant stakeholders at the various levels, especially for contentious issues such as the location of new housing. It suggests that the Localism Bill appears to be more directed to free standing rural villages with existing Parish Councils, and less mindful of the pressing challenges of urban regeneration in deprived neighbourhoods. These require social and economic development expertise to foster genuine participation. It notes that achieving neighbourhood aspirations requires the cooperation of service providers who need to genuinely listen to neighbourhoods. The paper stresses the value of involving housing associations in neighbourhood planning, and cautions on Community Right to Buy. It warns of the potential weakness of ‘neighbourhood forums’ but welcomes strong statutory Parish Councils (by whatever name) in both urban and rural areas. It suggests an aim of policy ought to be near universal coverage of this level of governance. It concludes by suggesting that learning about how to achieve localised governance requires diverse pilot initiatives in England and attention to other experienced jurisdictions such as Scotland.

1. Introduction

1.1 The Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods Network welcomes some provisions of the Localism Bill in terms of the necessary empowerment of communities, but is concerned that it will not achieve its stated aims of ‘cutting red tape’ and building the new homes that people want. SUNN was established in 2009 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to foster shared learning about the development of new communities. SUNN is a network of practitioners from ten new communities around England, and combines the knowledge of developers, local authorities, housing, community development and regeneration experts and residents of new communities.

1.2 SUNN’s new communities are developments underway, partially occupied, and committed to high standards in community building. SUNN’s regular day-long field meetings involve intense, off-the-record discussion. They have been held in York, Cambridge, Newcastle and Telford, with 2011 meetings planned in Solihull, Manchester and London. SUNN’s new communities are all within cities and towns or are urban extensions, in recognition that it is efficient to build at locations which support existing service provision and minimise travel distances by linking to existing transport.

1.3 To achieve its stated aims the Localism Bill should take more account of England’s pressing housing shortage and the role of local participation in meeting that need. The following points made by SUNN are relevant to the Localism Bill, and are illustrated by examples from our member communities and from our learning in Europe (in italics).

2. Supporting local economic growth

2.1 The experience of a number of SUNN members, for example in Cambridge and Telford is that social infrastructure in the form of new schools and places to meet are essential to building balanced and happy communities. All SUNN members recognise the vital importance of neighbourhoods being linked effectively to decision makers in the local authority, including elected members and officers, as well as to other public agencies, such as the Health Service. However there is no mechanism for ensuring that limited public funds are used to best effect now that developers are no longer funding Section 106 contributions, and government funds for delivery mechanisms like the sub-regional partnership Cambridgeshire Horizons have been cut. Experience both through the New Towns, and in other countries, such as the Netherlands where many more homes have been built, suggest that the issue of over-valued land and under funded infrastructure has to be tackled (as the Local Growth White Paper recognises).

3. Nesting neighbourhood plans

3.1 Positive local participation and neighbourhood planning often raises critical issues which cannot be resolved at the neighbourhood level, including issues around transport, service provision, education, health and the optimum location for new housing vis-à-vis infrastructure capacity and existing and new shops. This raises both planning and organisational issues. Good neighbourhood plans need to be carefully integrated into Local Development Frameworks and sub-regional strategies to generate maximum benefit from the localism process. Neighbourhood plans should concentrate on what kind of housing should be built, not where it should go.

3.2 The experience of SUNN suggests that neighbourhood planning and participation, local authority planning and sub-regional planning and cooperation are complementary, and that action, commitment and overview at higher spatial levels are essential to support neighbourhood aspirations. The Localism Bill appears to undervalue this ‘chain of sustainable development’. It is important that if communities or Parish Councils are to be respected in the neighbourhood planning process, higher levels of governance genuinely listen and reflect on what communities have to say.

3.3 Orchard Park, Cambridge The economic powerhouse of Cambridge is being held back by the high cost of housing, some eight times average salaries. The development of one of the first planned urban extensions, on a former army camp, was threatened by financial problems, leaving it looking like ‘Beirut’ according to journalists. Thanks to sub-regional partnership Cambridgeshire Horizons and the government’s Growth Fund, with support from RSLs, action was taken to rebuild confidence, and a vibrant new community, with an active Parish Council, has emerged. Cambridgeshire Horizons links adjacent local authorities and other key players in promoting local development. This suggests the importance of supporting neighbourhood planning at the city and sub-regional levels.

3.4 Vathorst, The Netherlands Housing schemes in Cambridgeshire have been learning from study tours to exemplary European housing schemes such as in the Netherlands, where the housing stock has been increased by almost 8% in ten years, half of which has been built by housing associations. The keys to community building are local authority participation in joint ventures, the availability of long-term low cost funding for infrastructure, and a less adversarial planning system. Local authorities are incentivised to promote growth in the places with infrastructure, and the private sector and/or housing association plays a supporting role.

4. Fostering participation and community building

in deprived neighbourhoods

4.1 Well-designed new housing can provide new hope for old areas, and support a more balanced community, as for example has been happening in Walker Riverside in Newcastle and Ancoats in Manchester. The Localism Bill appears to be more directed to ‘middle-class’ free standing rural villages with existing Parish Councils, and less mindful of the pressing challenges of urban regeneration in deprived neighbourhoods. Experience suggests residents in deprived neighbourhoods welcome opportunities for local participation but that funded community development effort is usually essential to engender local participation and to maximise the benefits of the process. Regeneration almost always requires partnership between the public and private sectors, so a ‘percent for the community’ could be directly funded from the Community Infrastructure Levy to support community building.

4.2 Walker Riverside, Newcastle Walker Riverside in Newcastle’s East End is one of a number of community regeneration schemes aimed at rebalancing the local economy and population. Attractive and affordable new housing is starting to change the area’s image and create a mixed income community close to the city centre, thus reducing transport emissions. The revitalisation of their neighbourhood in a participatory framework is also empowering long-standing existing residents dismayed by decline. However progress has been disrupted by the withdrawal of funding for both neighbourhood renewal and housing association grant. Huge efforts that have gone into neighbourhood planning may be wasted if the Localism Bill is not recast to reflect the requirements of England’s many deprived urban neighbourhoods.

5. Taking a wider perspective

5.1 As many have recognised, it would be a significant mistake to delegate decisions on the optimum location of new housing in England’s communities solely to the neighbourhood level. Whether a city, town or village ought to add to its housing stock for the benefit of current and future generations is a strategic decision with significant long-term implications, and which needs to reflect infrastructure capacity. The persons who ought to participate in such decisions are not only local residents but all the residents of the ‘community of the local authority’ area and members of the Local Enterprise Partnerships who can help residents reflect on the bigger picture. So communities can and should be empowered but this is insufficient on its own; planners and strategists at city and sub-regional levels should be required too to take note of what neighbourhoods want and need.

5.2 Derwenthorpe, York The Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) has been attempting to develop a small community of new housing in York for thirteen years, for the benefit of a city with a desperate housing shortage. Although the development has the backing of the City Council and the JRHT organised extensive local participation, a small number of articulate objectors from an adjacent neighbourhood have been able to stall that development for more than a decade. The costs are considerable, and as similar situations exist the length and breadth of England, the overall costs to ‘England plc’ are enormous. The Localism Bill ought to recognise that decisions on the location of new housing for the benefit of future generations have both local and strategic dimensions.

6. Harnessing housing associations for neighbourhood

development

6.1 RSLs play a vital role in the development process, both in providing a range of new housing but also, importantly, fostering local resident participation from the beginning so that a genuine sense of community is nurtured when the first residents move in. Many RSLs provide formal community development expertise, and also manage community facilities on behalf of communities. Yet their funding is being cut as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review. RSLs need to be encouraged to make a positive contribution to the nation’s stock of affordable housing by making land available to them on favourable terms, for example by amending the Community Right to Build and recognising that the best of housing associations are already working on behalf of local neighbourhoods.

7. Ensuring economic realism infuses Community Right to Buy

7.1 Providing opportunities for ‘community right to buy’ as proposed in the Localism Bill is welcome as these can be a valuable tool for community development. But experience in SUNN suggests four areas of caution ought to inform the Bill. First, right to buy almost always has to preceded by the establishment a viable formal organisation with financial powers and a workable business plan. This could be a development trust, Parish Council or other arrangement. Second, experience of our members suggests it is vital to consider where operating revenues will come from over the long haul of community ownership of facilities – before capital expenditure is committed. Our members know of too many community initiatives which subsequently foundered on problems in meeting financial operating commitments. Third, it is important to remember that community right to buy is simply a means to the end of community betterment and empowerment. In many of our communities, important social facilities are managed on behalf of local communities by RSLs which have both financial and managerial capacity. Fourth, while many local residents mourn the passing of familiar facilities, such as the local shop or pub, at the end of the day whether these can be resurrected by communities will need to be a hard-headed commercial decision.

7.2 Lightmoor, Telford and Grand Union Village, London Lightmoor is to be a second ‘Bourneville’, which is the highly successful Birmingham neighbourhood managed by the Bourneville Village Trust (BVT). In Lightmoor, BVT is paying particular attention to its role in stewardship of the public realm on behalf of the community. For example, the heart of the community is a new primary school, many of which facilities, such as its playing fields, are managed by BVT for the benefit of the neighbourhood out of school hours. Within SUNN, RSLs contributing to neighbourhoods in many ways, such as direct support for the Parish Council in Orchard Park, assistance with community learning in Yours Kings Lynn, and bringing young and older residents together in New Earswick, York. Another option is for developers to help establish community development trusts to promote community learning and to manage local facilities. To protect the community, such arrangements should be contractual in law. For example, a trust has been established in Grand Union Village to work on behalf of the community.

7.3 Dickens Heath, Solihull One of the relatively few examples of free-standing new communities complete with shops and services, Dickens Heath is the result of the collaboration between a consortium of house builders and the local authority. An active Parish Council has been set up to help manage community facilities. One lesson is that community aspirations for having vibrant local shopping can be difficult to realise if provision in the larger marketplace is not recognised, thus reinforcing the need for integration of neighbourhood planning with planning at higher spatial levels. Similarly in Lightmoor an aspiration for a neighbourhood pub/restaurant cannot be realised in current economic circumstances without subsidy.

8. The future of neighbourhood planning

8.1 A characteristic of SUNN is the variety of its member communities and their experience of planning new neighbourhoods that complement nearby existing neighbourhoods. This experience suggests points which will be important to the successful implementation of neighbourhood planning: [1]

8.1.1 For planning purposes, neighbourhoods need to reflect spatial boundaries which make sense to local people. These are usually oriented to a central shopping area, whether high street or estate precinct, or in smaller neighbourhoods, a community centre. Natural neighbourhood boundaries need to be determined; existing Parish Council boundaries may be out-of-date.

8.1.2 Because Parish Councils are statutory they have more permanence and authority than neighbourhood forums – many of which have come and gone in England over the past three decades. If Government is serious about neighbourhood planning, it should institute a national programme to work towards near universal coverage of Parish Councils in urban and rural areas, and be mindful of the fact the vast majority of England’s population live in urban areas. [2]

8.1.3 Members of Parish Councils or Neighbourhood Forums may need assistance in developing planning skills. In the USA, evening ‘planning academies’ link citizens and professionals in developing the local skills base. The skills that professional planners have should not be ignored but directed to working with neighbourhoods.

8.1.4 In many areas, particularly deprived urban areas, neighbourhood planning will be about much more than physical development where social and economic issues are pressing.

8.1.5 Neighbourhoods will have aspirations but much of what they want to achieve will require formal commitment of service providers to work with them to implement reasonable neighbourhood aspirations. Service providers include the local authority, the police, the NHS, the Employment Service and so on.

8.1.6 Service providers, on the other hand, may be willing to commit to working with neighbourhoods but will not have the resources to work with a large number of neighbourhoods in urban areas. The LEPs will need to play a critical role in fostering joint planning in an efficient manner.

8.1.7 Neighbourhood planning will only be successful if it overtly considers the relationship between participatory and representative democratic processes. Although Parish Councillors may be elected, in many cases there is no competition so in reality they are a valuable form of participatory democracy. Practically this means devising the means in each local authority for Parish councillors or Neighbourhood Forum representatives to work with local authority elected members and officers to achieve neighbourhood aspirations, without being dominated by those persons.

8.1.8 Parish Councils and Neighbourhood Forums can achieve a lot on modest resources but most all will need to avail themselves of the ‘Right to Precept’ if they are to have the necessary resources to carry out their functions.

8.2 Parish Council in Orchard Park, South Cambridgeshire South Cambridgeshire District Council is committed to universal coverage of Parish Councils so it is not surprising that there is a new Parish Council up and running for this new community on the edge of Cambridge. The Parish Council was set up as a ‘shadow council’ until elections could be organised. There are nine councillors. It manages community facilities including a community centre and sports facilities which provide one part of its income stream. These had been provided by a Section 106 agreement and were transferred directly from the development consortium to the Parish Council. The Parish Council is assisted by two part-time employees: a Clerk/Financial Officer and a Community Centre Manager. The Parish Council also secures revenue of using its Right to Precept.

9. Piloting different approaches

9.1 The experience of the SUNN learning network shows that it represents a more cost-effective way of supporting innovation than simply issuing national guidance because local innovation is the result of learning what works and what doesn’t in neighbourhood development. The Localism Bill should ensure that public funds are used to support networks so that different neighbourhoods can learn the lessons of neighbourhood participation. A first step in this learning process is to gather information on what is known about local participation and governance, for example drawing on research published by the JRF. [3] A second step is to learn from other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, which is a decade ahead of England in neighbourhood planning. The Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 made community planning at neighbourhood and local authority levels a statutory obligation on local authorities and other significant partners such as the NHS, the police, the employment service and so on. Since that time an enormous body of learning and experience on the challenges of the implementation of neighbourhood planning has been generated in Scotland. [4]

10. Maintaining expertise

10.1 Finally it is important to note that just at the time that Localism is to be institutionalised in England, serious constraints on public expenditure mean that many people knowledgeable about the practicalities of nurturing local participation are to be made redundant. Thought should be given to harnessing this valuable human resource to avoid having to ‘reinvent wheels’ and start all over again.

10.2 Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods Network By sharing experience between new communities in different situations, SUNN is pushing up standards, and helping to reduce costs. This is because guidance is no substitute for hands-on learning about the difficult challenge of neighbourhood planning. But learning from experience is becoming harder, as support mechanisms such as the Regional Centres of Excellence, are cut and senior staff take early retirement.

February 2011


[1] These issues will be explored in more depth in SUNN’s forthcoming Interim Findings (in press).

[2] Parish Councils can also be called Town, Community, Neighbourhood or Village Councils.

[3] Foot, Jane. Citizen involvement in local governance JRF summary, 2009; Taylor, Marilyn et al . Changing neighbourhoods: the impact of ‘light touch’ support in 20 communities JRF, 2007

[4] Carley, M. Implementing Community Planning – Building for the future of local governance , Edinburgh: Communities Scotland Report 44, 2004.