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Neighbourhood Planning – Crunch Time?

Neighbourhood planning seems to be one of the most challenging pieces of planning legislation in a long time; some seem to think it holds endless possibilities; sceptics think it is bound to fail, causing only extra costs and complications.

Yet the surge in public interest in the last 6 months – and the 200 plus plans which have been registered so far – mean that neighbourhood planning might be the most successful part of the Localism Act. In reality, many of these plans will soon go for examination and then to referendum, meaning neighbourhood planning is probably soon to meet its moment of reckoning.

Selected figures for Police and Crime Commissioner elections
Northamptonshire 20.0%
Humberside 19.2%
Kent 16.0%
Lincolnshire 15.3%
Gwent 14.0%
Merseyside 12.4%
Staffordshire 11.6%


Turnout Traumas

Dismal turnouts for the recent Police and Crime Commissioners’ election set a worrying precedent that should be of concern to the advocates of Neighbourhood Planning.

  • Do people actually want to vote on local issues?
  • If not, how can we encourage people to engage?
  • Does poor turnout affect the perceived legitimacy of locally-based public projects?
  • Does the ballot box attract public participation – or do people just think it is an expensive gimmick?

What if neighbourhood planning referendums had similar turnouts?

  • Would plan credibility be compromised?
  • Would local people disassociate themselves from aspects they dislike?
  • Would the experiment end in sorry failure?

The Institute’s View:

Neighbourhood planning is much too important to be left to the planners!

  • Positive public participation is not likely to emerge without wholehearted community commitment.
  • This can only happen if people feel empowered to discuss everything about their local neighbourhoods – not just ‘planning issues’.
  • As with all good engagement, everyone needs feedback.
  • Referendums will have to be organised – and publicised – better than the recent police elections!
  • The Government needs some very visible ‘quick wins’. If the frontrunners take much longer, all sense of urgency will be lost.

Progress, Problems and Potential

  • Neighbourhood planning is probably a reaction to the unpopular aspects of the traditional planning system – seen by the Government as confrontational, adversarial and un-democratic. Progress is being made in dismantling some of its rigidities. Communities aren’t queuing up! Few appear to have been convinced that Neighbourhood Plans would make a difference. Problems loom large unless people become motivated.
  • There is still great potential. Neighbourhood-level issues abound, both in parishes and in our larger towns and cities. This could yet be an effective way to address local problems.


Now is make-or-break time. Anyone flirting with the idea of building a Neighbourhood Plan needs to consider the dangers of setting forth with only half-hearted community commitment.  It is time to consider how best to react, and therefore this briefing is of relevance to Councillors, public engagement specialists in the private and local government sectors, social enterprises and charities, planning consultancies, planning departments and local community leaders.

Further Insights

  • Briefing Notes are published by the Institute in good faith as a member benefit, but the information provided cannot be relied upon as constituting advice giving rise to any legal or other liability whether express or implied.The Institute is holding a roundtable to discuss positive public participation in neighbourhood planning on the 29th of November in London. The DCLG, Locality and Planning Aid England will all be presenting. Phone or email for the full agenda and to book your place.
  • Neighbourhood planning advocates need to be proficiently trained in a range of skills and knowledge on public engagement. For help, see our training schedule

This is the 5th Briefing Note; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement

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