By Harriet Dalrymple, Dialogue by Design project coordinator
Dialogue by Design is OPM’s sister company and specialises in running public and stakeholder engagement processes using online, paper-based and face-to-face methods.
A key component of the Localism Bill, which reached Royal Assent last year, is to pass the ‘power of competence’ down to local authorities. This will give local people the right to make decisions about planning in their local area through the right to develop a neighbourhood plan.
But we need to ensure that ideas from a broad range of people in the community are represented in these plans. This can present considerable challenges, especially when the planners are not representative of the rest of the community.
Neighbourhood plans will enable communities to designate areas for development, protect green spaces and grant neighbourhood development orders. They will probably be led and developed by parish councils, although the bill makes provisions for other community groups to create a plan if they desire. As with any planning exercise, communication with the people the plan affects will be crucial.
It seems likely that community engagement may bring a variety of challenges to parish and town councillors, many of whom are demographically very different from the wider community. The 2010 national census of local authority councillors showed that most councillors are male (68.5%), retired (47.2%), white (96.3%) and old (59.4% are over the age of 60). Given this difference it will be very interesting to see how the developers of neighbourhood plans ensure that their plan represents the needs of the local community, particularly young people, who have the biggest vested interest in the future of their locality.
Involving the whole community
So what should parish and town councils be doing to involve a cross section of the community? As OPM’s Unlocking Local Capacity report notes, local authorities have a role to play in providing training, and building capacity in parish councils and other community groups, enabling them to carry out high-quality engagement with the communities they represent.
The Low Carbon Communities Challenge involved some excellent examples of local authorities and community groups working together to achieve community engagement. Haringey Council, a Beacon Council for their work involving and engaging local people, worked together with Muswell Hill Sustainability Group (MHSG) to implement energy saving technologies in the community. To meet their low carbon zone targets it was vital that all residents in the area participated in the project, so the council and MHSG worked together to develop a diverse range of options for participation so that residents could investigate them all and choose a relevant option. Additionally a schools programme has now been set up, involving young people, helping to ensure the future of the low carbon zone.
If neighbourhood planning can be made relevant and interesting to all residents, this will help ensure that neighbourhood plans are successful, and will help to secure the future of the plan. If not, poorly planned and unsuccessful community engagement could lead to significant waste of time and money.