In November 2011 the UK Government enacted the Localism Act, a piece of planning legislation intended to give local communities in England increased power over development planning in their areas, and to reduce the bureaucracy associated with planning approvals. One of the more interesting sets of measures relates to neighbourhood planning, potentially a very radical initiative putting real power in the hands of local residents, and worth watching by community organisations and planning authorities around the world.
The measures allow residents and workers in a local community to form an organisation and apply to become a "neighbourhood forum" associated with a defined neighbourhood area. If approved, the forum becomes "entitled" to "require" that the local authority make neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood development orders, based on drafts that it submits, that can determine what kinds of development are and aren't allowed in the area, and what kinds of development do or don't require approval from the local authority. For example, the community may decide that converting roofspace into spare rooms or splitting a house into apartments need no longer require planning approval.
At least one of the forums seems to have behaved more like a fringe political party--built around local personalities, closing ranks to outsiders, etc.--than as a real forum intended to build consensus.
The process for becoming a neighbourhood forum is similar to the approval process for development applications: the local authority must publish the application and advertise its existence throughout the area, and allow anyone in the general public to respond before making a decision. The organisation must be open to all individuals who live or work in the area, and the local authority must consider the diversity of the organisation compared to the diversity of the area, so that the organisation is truly representative of the neighbourhood.
The process for making neighbourhood plans and orders goes one step further: a referendum of all people within an area must be conducted before they can be approved.
What this should mean is that the residents and businesses of any neighbourhood, however small, can slowly become their own planning authority, collectively shaping the kind of development they want, and making life easier for themselves in the long run.
A neighbourhood divided
But it also means that the kinds of local politics usually conducted by councillors and local lobbyists may now be played out in the homes and shops of every affected neighbourhood, or through neighbours facing off against each other in the streets. The north London suburbs of Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington in the borough of Hackney are home to several hundred young and growing families including Turkish, Polish and Nigerian populations as well as one of Europe's largest populations of Haredi, also known as ultra-orthodox Jews.
Many streets are lined with rows of well-preserved Victorian and arts-and-crafts terraced houses, others with early 20th century and post-war social housing estates, and in this they are typical of the architectural landscape throughout London, and many other cities in the United Kingdom and indeed northern Europe. One of the largest social housing estates, Woodberry Down, is being redeveloped from scratch into a mix of social housing blocks and private residential condominiums through a public-private partnership.
A small number of residents have taken advantage of the new neighbourhood planning measures to propose the "Stamford Hill Neighbourhood Forum". While this organisation comprises members from various ethnic and religious groups, it has become associated with the personality of Isaac Leibowitz, a Haredi and a former councillor convicted in 2001 of vote rigging in 1998 council elections. It has also become associated with an ambition to strip much of the two suburbs of residential planning controls, to allow residents to expand their homes without regard for overshadowing, availability of green space, or streetscape quality. Leibowitz argues that residents in the area require this freedom to accommodate their growing families and prevent children growing up in overcrowded conditions, especially amongst the Haredi where the average family may have six to eight children.
Opponents argue that such proposals would destroy the architectural qualities of the area, block out light for other residents, allow unsightly and poorly built rooftop and backyard extensions, and see homes converted into schools and places of worship without proper impact assessments, all of which has already started to occur throughout the area. They propose that some of the new school places required by the growing numbers of children should be incorporated into the Woodberry Down redevelopment where they will have the space to meet minimum health and educational standards. They also accuse the Stamford Hill forum of failing to represent the entire neighbourhood, refusing to advertising its meetings and making itself impossible to contact. The matter has not been helped by the way dramatic accusations of anti-Semitism, fascism and "social cleansing" have become a theme of the debates.
It is therefore more likely that the kinds of organisations that will apply to form neighbourhood forums will be the ideologically motivated special interest groups forged through such tensions, not the community-minded broad grassroots that the UK government may have intended.
One of the opposing organisations, Hackney Unites, which runs the watchdog Hackney Planning Watch and is associated with local academics and trade unionists, put forward an application to form a "North Hackney Neighbourhood Forum" that would cover the same area, to stoke opposition to the first application and, they say, to develop a forum that would be truly representative. But, having failed to engage any members of the Haredi community in its alternative forum, Hackney Planning Watch took the extraordinary step of campaigning for both applications to be rejected, with leaflets declaring that "Hackney Planning Watch believe that planning is just too divisive an issue to be devolved to neighbourhood forums." The leaflet quotes Chaya Spitz, chief executive of Interlink, a local Jewish charity: "it has opened old wounds. We are seeing how difficult it can get when this issue is put in the hands of the community."
Hackney Council will decide on the two forum applications in September. Yet even now mayor Jules Pipe has indicated that "there would be a huge question mark over any forum that wasn't inclusive."
The partisanship of participatory planning
At stake is not simply one group's right to extend their houses as they please against another group's right to preserve an architectural heritage of great significance to the community. The Victorian architecture of Stamford Hill has become a proxy for fundamental differences in values and ethnic misunderstandings that have long gone unresolved.
It is important to observe how the two forums have emerged not from the community as a whole, but from within specific ideological camps. At least one of the forums seems to have behaved more like a fringe political party — built around local personalities, closing ranks to outsiders, etc. — than as a real forum intended to build consensus. Rather than remove politics and politicians from planning, the government's initiative has brought heated political conflict down to the scale of the neighbourhood, where people are perhaps least inclined to debate issues objectively, hence the call from Hackney Planning Watch for Hackney Council to retain its role as mediator.
This is probably how most neighbourhood forums will arise in reality. The majority of local community members, especially in relatively stable areas such as suburban London, are rarely mobilised by a latent desire to contribute to everyday planning processes, but are more often spurred into action by specific planning battles or neighbourhood tensions. It is therefore more likely that the kinds of organisations that will apply to form neighbourhood forums will be the ideologically motivated special interest groups forged through such tensions, not the community-minded broad grassroots that the UK government may have intended.
This applies to participatory planning policies in cities around the world. Whatever form its institutions take — from the UK government's neighbourhood planning policies, to participatory networks such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International — participatory planning can never be divorced from politics and ideological conflict. So it makes sense to imagine that such institutions can be dominated by special interest groups, political factions and partisanship from the outset, to embrace the conflict that participation produces and design institutions for it to be resolved constructively.