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Localism: How to be the friendly neighbourhood architect

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Planning portal: Recent changes to the Localism Bill leave architects well placed to steer neighbourhood plans, says Chris Quigley

The Conservative Party’s belief that planning and other local government services must move away from relying on central government guidance and targets is a key strand of communities secretary Eric Pickles’ Localism agenda.

This intention was clearly expressed during the run-up to the last election, in the party’s ‘Open Source Planning’ green paper. While the scrapping of regional housing targets gained most exposure, it was the concept of neighbourhood planning that truly heralded the new Localism.

Yet since the green paper’s publication in February 2010 and the first reading of the Localism Bill in December, neighbourhood planning has itself evolved. When planning minister Greg Clark first introduced the idea, he placed it squarely in the hands of local residents. For Clark, neighbourhood planning was akin to community democracy where local people agreed what their local area would look like. However, the emphasis has shifted since the chancellor reported lower-than-hoped growth projections in March.

The chancellor’s ‘Plan for Growth’ initiative aimed to reform the planning system ‘radically and fundamentally’ through greater business involvement. While streamlining the planning system is a cliché used by many ministers, the revised Localism Bill now provides new powers for businesses to bring forward neighbourhood plans. Not only should businesses contribute to the community-led neighbourhood plans, in some cases they should be the ones driving the process. The result has been eight ‘Business Neighbourhood Frontrunners’ established in May, including areas such as Bankside in south London and Central Milton Keynes.

While local residents remain a key element of neighbourhood planning, it is clear the government realises that Localism has failed to stimulate economic growth. Businesses will therefore now play a greater role in neighbourhood planning. So what does this mean for architects?

Until now planning consultants have promoted their clients’ interests through the established regional and local planning policy frameworks. This process has been vital in establishing policy support for the principle of certain types of development. However there is now a requirement to engage with the neighbourhood level of planning. While the full powers of neighbourhood plans have yet to be established, they will play a key and active role in shaping development proposals. The neighbourhood plan cannot be a radical departure from the local plan, but it can establish policies to steer future planning applications.

Although a large range of subjects will be discussed at local levels, they can be broadly classified as issues surrounding use and design. Ultimately, communities will want to influence what is in their area and what it looks like. Planners have skills in arguing the former but are much weaker when it comes to making the case for a certain design approach. This is where architects can play a key role.

As neighbourhood planning develops and the Localism Bill becomes law, businesses will require a greater representation at neighbourhood level. This applies to a range of firms involved in the development sector, including traditional developers as well as retailers, pension funds and investors. Though previously planning consultants have filled the role of policy promotion, it will increasingly be up to architects to contribute to the debate. Design will be a key point of contestation in many local areas, and architects can bring certain skills and language to protect and promote the interests of their clients.

It is clear that Localism is not going to go away and whatever form it takes, it will introduce new scales at which planning policy will be expressed. Neighbourhood planning has become a key reference point for Conservative Party policy, as it combines issues of local democracy, the Big Society and reform of the planning system to accommodate business aspirations. At this new tier of policy-making, the issue of design, so emotive to many, will be crucial. Architects should grasp this opportunity to become involved in policy-making.

Chris Quigley is a writer on planning and development issues www.musingsofanurbanist.blogspot.com

More on neighbourhood plans at the AJ Localism blog

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