Last night I went to a neighbourhood meeting to explore the idea of creating a parish council and a neighbourhood plan where I call home in East London. I don’t know if it was the same old people because it was my first meeting of this kind in Hackney. Whether these were the usual suspects or not, they knew what they wanted for their place. They just didn’t seem convinced that another tier of government or a neighbourhood plan was going to make things happen.
The meeting was chaired by an ex-councillor who lives in the area. He set the scene by asking the audience if they recognised a series of images. They were derelict buildings, piles of trash by a council estate, and plans for a high-rise development. There were many nods and call-outs of street names. These people knew the problems in the community. He pointed out that a café on the main market road which serves standard British food can’t afford to pay the council’s fee for putting tables and chairs on the pavement. The upmarket cafés on that same street all have tables out front. This means that certain socioeconomic groups of the same neighbourhood are allowed pleasures that others simply can’t afford – right in the centre of public space.
We heard a few excellent presentations, one that I’d like to quickly highlight. Euan Mills spoke about his experience working on the Chatsworth Road Neighbourhood Plan . He broke down the process of neighbourhood planning into 3 simple steps (not simple to do, but simple to understand).
- define the boundaries of the neighbourhood
- identify 5 to 10 high level aspirations for the area
- identify projects and policies to deliver the aspirations
These steps all involve consulting the community using a wide range of methods. Maybe the most important thing that Euan said was ‘a neighbourhood plan won’t stop a place from changing.’
And that’s the crux of the issue. What’s the use of a neighbourhood plan? This was widely debated. The majority of the room seemed keen to have an influence on the planning decisions in their area. If there was certainty that the neighbourhood plan would have some weight, they might get behind it. They are clear that they don’t want high-rise developments coming into their neighbourhood. If they could use the plan to say ‘no’ to certain types of development then the plan might be worthwhile.
But is that possible? The Department for Communities and Local Government say that neighbourhood plans are about ‘promoting’ development – they are not a ‘NIMBY’s charter’. Is that prescription from DCLG in the spirit of the Localism Bill? Will neighbourhoods like mine be able to put their real aspirations in their neighbourhood plan, or will they get watered down by the need to conform to national and local policies?
Personally, I think it is worth spending some time to put together a neighbourhood plan like that one that Euan is working on at Chatsworth Road. As a community, if we can voice our problems and our goals (those that we can agree upon) we are more likely to benefit from the development that is bound to happen in our area. If we don’t write the plan, we might not see the benefits from developer contributions.
N.B. I mostly refer to my neighbours as ‘them’ only because this is my first time meeting ‘them’. ‘We’ feels a bit premature just yet…but they were a very welcoming group.