Photo: View from Hayne Down from James Stringer Flickr photostream

The Localism Act (2011)identified local communities as best placed to determine the nature of development in their areas. Apparently, by empowering and responsibilising local communities, the rhetoric of localism in neighbourhood planning, marks an attempt to square democratic engagement with an agenda of deregulated development but, eight years on, whose purposes does the policy of citizen-led planning serve now?

Neighbourhood planning is, by its very nature, problematic. For example, the most recent attempt at addressing planning is riddled with contradictions. Whilst a high degree of local influence, (and even formal legal control), overdevelopment was promised in the reforms, simultaneously national planning directives have dictated an automatic presumption in favour of development which local citizen-led plans were expected to comply with. This contradiction typically favoured the national over the local and was further compounded by an imbalance of power, capacity and capability between different actors which was built-in to the neighbourhood planning process. The net effect was that the ability of citizen planners to effectively challenge the dominant national pro-growth, development agenda was severely constrained.

Whilst communities might want to bring forward a range of planning objectives – for example, affordable housing, sustainable transport projects, or increased environmental protection – the national policy focus has been economic growth through investment in the built environment, primarily through the achievement of volume housebuilding targets. A fixed supply of land and high demand means that rural land has become the investment of choice for speculators with cash to spare and access to credit: in the 10 years up to 2014 the price of UK arable land rose by 277%, and Oliver Letwin’s recent report noted that a site worth £10,000 an acre in agricultural use might now realise up to £1m with planning consent. This get-rich-quick potential has inevitably reduced the opportunity of citizen-led neighbourhood plan groups to press their wider social ambitions.

Given these difficulties, it is unsurprising that by January 2016 only 130 neighbourhood plans had progressed to the final stage of authorisation, against a government target of over 1500. If the policy of neighbourhood planning is not successful in engaging communities across the country, or in delivering their wider aspirations, the questions which arise are what purpose does the policy serve, and in whose interests is its continuation?

Neighbourhood planning is positioned within the wider context of the neoliberal transformation of society. In common with other neoliberal projects it is multifaceted with complementary, mutually-supporting strands, three of which – the prioritisation of lay wisdom over professional expertise and experience; the localisation of responsibility to “imagined” (and frequently ‘local’) communities; and a dependence on and exploitation of a community’s social capital – can be seen in action within neighbourhood planning.

Firstly, the application of neoliberal thinking to land-use challenges and undermines statist notions of governmental intervention and control and even the idea of “planning” itself as a legitimate activity. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, central government funding cuts have reduced the resources of planning departments by 55% since 2010/11, whilst at the same time, “planning” has been consistently demonised and blamed for the national failure to deliver sufficient new housing in England. The shifting of resources from local planning authorities to citizen planning groups, therefore, serves those who seek to undermine and de-professionalise planning as a statutory function.

Consequently, a secondary purpose we might say that neighbourhood planning functions to serve is to inculcate within citizens the notion that they have a responsibility to play a full and active role in co-producing their own futures. Neighbourhood planning can be much more than an instrumentalist tool to effect centralism locally: it can deliver self-responsibilised behaviours which, in a Foucauldian sense, ensure conformance rather than challenge. As it is, the construct of neighbourhood planning, with volunteers fulfilling their role as responsible, compliant citizens, gives a veneer of democratic legitimacy to local planning decisions whilst distancing central government from electoral accountability. It serves those who wish to perpetuate the illusion that co-production, volunteerism and “Big Society” initiatives are a genuine proxy for real control, influence and power, justifying the further pseudo-democratisation of planning.

Thirdly, the insertion of localism into planning is based upon a spatial imaginary where “neighbourhood” is envisioned as a homogeneous space, where interests coincide rather than compete, where austerity has not impacted, and where social capital is evenly distributed. Localities, though, are not all the same and the practice of “localist statecraft” through neighbourhood planning works both to widen spatial variation and to undermine any broader sense of national or inter-regional justice or fairness. This trend towards citizen-led planning has further important consequences for the health of our communities as it undermines the historically-important role of local planning authorities in creating safe and healthy environments, in delivering habitable, sustainable homes and in ensuring population wellbeing. The value of neighbourhood planning should be subject to critical review to weigh the benefits of local engagement and participation against the loss of professional leadership and skill in how plans are developed and the consequences of this for the legitimate aspirations of rural communities.

Neighbourhood planning speaks to a belief that land-use planning is best delivered through the adoption within compliant communities of these neoliberal approaches. The performance of neighbourhood planning simultaneously creates illusions of local control and power, divides communities from one another, and plays to populist notions regarding the irrelevance of traditional expertise and experts.

Moreover, the construction of neighbourhood planning serves those with vested interests in the delivery of economic growth through an expansive programme of housebuilding. Power asymmetries intrinsic to neighbourhood planning not only inhibit achievement of the broader social goals that rural communities desire but are complicit in the avoidance of politically sensitive issues, such as land ownership. It, therefore, favours existing land and property owners, those who inherit it and speculators and plays an unintentional but fundamental role in cementing inequalities in wealth, income and living standards into the fabric of rural societies. This raises a question of whether, as a society, we could, through a significant programme of land reform, (such as that advocated by the Labour Party’s Land Value Tax policy), confront land ownership inequalities, and thereby enable the meaningful democratic engagement upon which the creation of sustainable rural communities depends?

About the Author: Adrian Mercer is an occasional contributor to the blog. He has chaired a neighbourhood plan group in Devon for the past couple of years, but he writes here in a personal capacity. He can be found on twitter @adeindevon