Cllr Andrew Wood represents the Canary Wharf Ward on Tower Hamlets Council.
One of the most important, but least appreciated, government policies of the last five years has been the localism agenda initiated by the Localism Act of 2011, delivering real power into local people’s hands. However, it is a policy that we as a Party do not talk enough about and it rarely intrudes into the national press. Neighbourhood Planning is one the most important of the new powers. It can, if used imaginatively and with ambition, have a material impact on your local area.
Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets wrote here a few weeks ago about the practical effect of Neighbourhood Planning. But I want to talk about the Neighbourhood Planning process itself and why you should start a Neighbourhood Plan. That is provided nobody else in your local area has already done so – you may need to get your skates on, it is a policy that 2,000 groups across the country have already started.
Put simply, it is a fantastic way to engage with local people in a way that is likely to engage many more people than almost anything else you are likely to do. Planning is about where you live or work, what it will look like, how it develops and the future. It is one of the few subjects that can bring people together from across the community.
For example, the Forum I helped set up, the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum within three months of its inception had three times as many members as the local Conservative Party Association, while covering a smaller area. We were already attracting twice as many people to meetings as have ever attended an association AGM.
So far there have been more than 200 referendums, all yes votes with an average yes vote of 89 per cent: these are almost North Korean democracy levels of support…
It is true that some Neighbourhood Plans start off as a NIMBY tool to try and stop development but that is very much dependent on the leadership and how they are started. Neighbourhood Plans cannot stop development but they can shape it and help deliver a more sustainable solution that provides more homes as well as infrastructure. It may be that your Neighbourhood Plan delivers a policy as St Ives did on second homes that perhaps does not sit well with all Conservatives. But if we really believe in localism and decentralisation then we have to trust local people to make local decisions that works for them. National legislation will rarely work equally well for every single part of the country.
People feel disenfranchised about politics but here we can give them back real power over their local area. Which is perhaps why some Councils resist or delay the setting up of Forums. My Council took sixteen months to recognise us. A week before they did so, they removed a third of the areas residents had voted on. But for Neighbourhood Planning to work it cannot be seen as a party political effort, it has to really involve everybody in the local community in order to have legitimacy and support.
Perhaps one of the main reasons to do a Neighbourhood Plan is the ability to guide how 25 per cent of the Community Infrastructure Levy should be spent. While it is unlikely that your area will earn £67 million in CIL within sixteen months as mine has done, the amounts at stake could be considerable. Having a Neighbourhood Planning referendum also replaces the first step in setting up a new Parish Council. The combination of a new Parish Council and a Neighbourhood Plan together have a real ability to transform governance of an area, but again, the decision on whether to take this step or not is up to residents.
If you have not already started a Neighbourhood Plan in your area, I urge you to do so. They are not party political tools and will bring in people with whom you do not necessarily see eye to eye at all times but there are few other ways where you can implement government policy, engage so widely with the community, and build strong relationships with many local people. The only downside is that they are a lot of work but there is support available and the process becomes easier with more groups who go through the systems. Parliament is about to consider the new Neighbourhood Planning Bill which will further improve the process.
If you want to find out more visit our website. We are also holding a fringe event at Conference about Neighbourhood Planning on Monday 3rd October 3.45pm in the Dolce Room Hyatt Hotel within the secure zone. It is titled ‘Neighbourhood Planning in the fastest growing place in the UK or how to get 89 per cent of the vote’