How Local Is Your Local Plan?
Community priorities versus central diktat.
Few would envy the job of local planners. Even fewer step forward to give them direction or respond to their efforts.
Councils across England have been thrown into disarray by revised planning requirements from central government — hence feverish activity to produce and consult on their Local Plans. There is huge diversity across Local Government Authorities but to policy makers in Whitehall, striving to achieve national averages, the word Authority might better be replaced with Agency.
Fareham Borough Council, for example, comprises a coastal chunk of Hampshire strung along a corridor between Portsmouth and the River Hamble, half way to Southampton. For its many communities the deadline for responses to the latest iteration of their Local Plan is fast approaching. This network of communities within a larger network is not uncommon — even London is best understood as a series of linked villages — and each has its own characteristics and a sense of identity.
This Plan’s horizon is 2036 but the Local Plan Update delivered to all households is headlined Fareham Today — not Fareham Tomorrow. It’s an attempt to think again after central government moved the goalposts — with conflicting commands to accommodate even more housing and less pollution.
Fareham, of course, is not alone. Councils across England are recalculating the impacts of a new framework, supposedly designed to meet promised targets but imposed by Whitehall with scant regard for local needs and priorities. It’s no surprise that this update is mostly about finding spaces for housing development.
In a single sentence apology the Plan Update acknowledges that it should be ‘about more than new houses’ but more than 13 of the 19 pages home in on housing. The Plan Update is decorated with brief examples of past achievements in transport and business infrastructure, air quality, sports and leisure facilities. To find any mention of plans for schools to accommodate the offspring from an extra 520 new households every year one must dig into the detail to unearth ritual nods to the duties of the Local Education Authorities — similarly seen from above as Agencies. The required annual delivery of 520 new homes will, of course, continue until Whitehall’s goal post shifters next feel their knife-twisting urge.
So is this really a Local Plan?
In what way does it reflect local needs or local priorities? Or is it an ever-so-humble compliant submission to some distant central ‘authority’ under threat of even higher impositions from Whitehall if the revised targets are unmet?
So many questions.
Obviously housing is one of the primary needs but what about local plans for managing investment in:
· Gigabit digital infrastructure: is there a local plan for copper switch-off and more switched-on enterprises?
· Ensuring that local workforces are retrained for future employment: who, locally, heads a campaign for up-skilling?
· Delivering higher levels of digital inclusion: what do we know of diminished wellbeing and local inequalities amongst the off-liners in our community?
· Greater promotion of the local economy: do we see any plan for inward investment or development of our community’s social and economic networking? In the context of looming Brexit are we preparing better trade deals with our critical European partners?
· Giving open access to local data sources: do we have, for example, priority plans for homeless rough sleepers, easy access to local air pollution data, child poverty studies or Food Bank needs, to inform local policy priorities?
· Increasing local capacity for innovation: what is the programme to build stronger links between Universities/Colleges and local employers?
· Navigating Resilience and Sustainability imperatives: how concerned, for example, are we about flood prevention and coping with the impacts? A recent report says, not enough.
These are the generic primary indicators used worldwide to assess ‘Intelligent Communities’. In the UK, the conventional strategic ‘top down’ approach defaults to individual sector-based solutions but these lateral themes reach across all activities.
But this model of the ‘community fabric’ is not the only framework available.
Local leaders might perhaps be informed by the work of ‘Community Organisers’ or organisations like the ‘Good Things Foundation’ or perhaps the work of renegade economists: Ellen MacArthur’s Circular Economy, Marianna Mazzucato’s ‘Entrepreneurial State‘, Bruce Katz’s ‘New Localism’ or (pic below) Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ — or indeed almost anything other than what passes for thinking in a Whitehall distracted by trying to stop the world to get off.
All of these themes inject new impetus into the development of fresh approaches to community development and one need not travel far from Fareham to find examples of local responses to perceived needs. The new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole local council has lost no time in declaring its resolve to tackle climate change and they are far from alone in planning for priorities.
On one hand you feel for the future of fair places like Fareham — blinkered by blustering bureaucrats to focus on ‘top down’ targets driven by averages that don’t reflect the great diversity of real community needs and local talents. On the other hand you can grieve for lack of local leadership imagination or the dull despairing conformance of citizens and communities that wouldn’t dare defy dogmatic demands from dim and distant dictators in London.
These observations may be doing the lumbered local leaders of places like Fareham a grave disservice. Much more may be planned but just not disclosed in their Local Plan Update and not shared with those who could make stuff happen.
Managing the contradictions of top-down commands and local priorities is a complex puzzle with great temptation for franchise resignation — or renaming the Government’s Local Agency Plan as ‘Fareham Yesterday’.