Amidst Stumbles, New Momentum for UK Neighborhood Planning
When the Transatlantic Cities Network (TCN) traveled to Birmingham, UK last fall, a hot issue was the ongoing evolution of UK’s “Big Society.” As a counterweight to national austerity, the Big Society was a national government manifesto aimed at empowering UK’s civil society. As Cameron described it in 2011, Big Society is “all about giving people more power and control to improve their lives and communities.”
Soon after Cameron outlined his vision for the Big Society, the national government passed the 2011 Localism Act. The Act gives neighborhoods the ability to create their own plans to outline local development priorities and goals without interference from higher levels of government. A neighborhood plan, for example, could specify new development sites or set out priorities for public amenities (the national government did, of course, impose certain conditions to how a plan can be formed and how it must align to national policy frameworks). Once each plan is put together, it must pass a local referendum in which at least 50 percent of voters within the area covered by the plan vote in favor. If it is successful, it gains legal power and must be considered by the local planning authority as part of the formal planning process.
The Act has enormous potential to improve neighborhood governance in what has traditionally been a highly centralized country. In practice, however, the application of the Act has been less then spectacular, and many have criticized the concept as ill-defined and underfunded. The national government launched the process using several pilot neighborhoods, but this pilot program provides just £20,000 to put each plan together. Many of the simple terms within the Act have proven to be difficult to explain, including defining what a neighborhood is, how a neighborhood can pay for a plan, and how a plan is evaluated (officially, the Act says that each plan must be evaluated by an outside “examiner”).
The Transatlantic Cities Network spent an afternoon visiting the neighborhood of Balsall Heath in Birmingham, one of the 20 neighborhoods creating a neighborhood plan as part of the national pilot program. It was fairly easy to understand the neighborhood’s selection – alongside high poverty rates, Balsall Heath also has considerable ethnic diversity, an active civil society with several lively residents group and nonprofits, a long track record of self-organization, and a generally mature “social infrastructure.” As the TCN heard, the neighborhood is eager to grasp the opportunity but is also conscious of the challenges inherent in being a forerunner of this ongoing planning experiment.
Just a few days ago, the first UK neighborhood plan passed in Upper Eden, a rural area covering 17 different parishes in Cumbria in Northwest UK. As the first voter approval under the Localism Act, the plan’s passage and potential influence has grand implications for the future of planning in the UK. As a good barometer of its potential impact, the plan passed overwhelmingly with over 90 percent approval among voters. The process toward completion was also fairly straightforward. After an initial consultation in 2011, the plan was open for public comment and passed examination soon after. The core of the plan focused on achieving a certain standard of affordable housing and on creating greater housing options for the elderly. Interestingly, the plan also relaxes some of the constraints on the development of farm property.
A neighborhood is an important contributor of local identity, and a well-composed neighborhood plan could therefore be critical to democratic local governance. Thus, if Upper Eden is a sign of the many plans to come, that is a policy direction that the UK and its neighborhoods, including Balsall Heath, should continue to pursue. Already, a few funding entities have stepped in to provide neighborhoods with greater funding opportunities. At the same time, it will also be important to observe how neighborhood planning unfolds in more urban areas, where plan formation, passage, and implementation will likely be more complex and contentious.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.