Today's guest post is from Amy Burnett, who is also happy to answer any Neighbourhood Plan related questions you may have (see below) ...

When some people hear the word "planning" it is not something that usually gets them very excited.  Planning may conjure up images of dull technocrats, complicated maps and perhaps ugly remnants of poorly designed projects that resonate in our collective perception.  Yet planning has a fundamental role to play in the transition to a low-carbon society. 

Indeed, it can enhance the conditions in which low-carbon activity thrives, whether this be the design of the built-up area around which communities come together, the materials that are used in construction or specifying the type of energy used in buildings.  Indeed, ‘sustainable development’ is at the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), albeit with a strong emphasis on economic growth. 


My own PhD research is exploring the extent to which Neighbourhood Plans can be a thoroughfare for low-carbon transitions (Burnett, forthcoming).  This article is based on a number of discussions I have had with Transition initiatives, and others, engaged in developing Neighbourhood Plans and their experiences in working with parish and town councils to influence low-carbon and Transition-inspired policies.   While Neighbourhood Planning itself is limited to England, I hope that this article is also relevant to Transition initiatives from across the world that are interested in becoming more engaged in planning. 

Background to Neighbourhood Plans

Engaging the ‘community’ in planning is not new.  Across the world, communities have been involved in developing plans to varying degrees; some groups may be invited to consult only to ‘tick a box’ whilst others are more active in co-creating local plans and policies. 

Introduced in April 2012, Neighbourhood Plans are part of the Government’s Localism agenda to enable ‘neighbourhoods’ in England to develop a plan that reflects their preferences for development*.  Neighbourhood Planning is specifically designed for land use issues.  This might include specifying where houses and industrial/commercial buildings should be built, their design standards and the materials used in construction. 

Neighbourhood Plans are an opportunity for communities to not only to contribute ideas but the approved Plan will have statutory weight in planning decisions and become part of the local development plan.  So, if your community has strongly voiced a preference for renewable energy in new houses, or a particular to actively allocate specific sites for co-housing, so long as it doesn’t conflict with existing policy - i.e. EU policies, NPPF and the Local Plan (which may have been developed at District or County level depending on local government structures) - the local council and developers need to consider this as important as other national and county policy.  

NPIt is important to know what Neighbourhood Plans cannot do, including prevent projects of national significance or mineral extraction, i.e. fracking, to prevent development from taking place, or specify a conservation area,.  The diagram to the right is a useful frame of reference for what needs to be in a Neighbourhood Plan, e.g. relating to issues in the bottom right hand segment. 
By August 2014, 1149 applications had been made to DCLG to become a designated area for Neighbourhood Planning, 28 have been passed through the required referendum and 18 have now been approved.  It may, therefore, be highly likely that a Neighbourhood Plan is being developed in your area at the moment.  

Neighbourhood Plans are not something that Transition initiatives could initiate themselves in parishes and towns, this decision rests with the parish or town council.   In a city, community members can become part of a Neighbourhood Development Forum, which must include at least 21 members.  For more information on governance and the steps involved in developing a Neighbourhood Plan see here

NeighboursWhile Neighbourhood Plans have the potential to transform power, attitudes and low-carbon ambition, this is by no means a straightforward exercise.  Planning has a number of technical terms, concepts and planning guidance to come to terms with.  While this has been simplified under the NPPF, developing a Neighbourhood Plan can take two years and the cost can be significant, there is some grant support fromLocality for up to £7,000, which ends in December 2014 – and sadly no new applications are being taken as of August 2014.  

A new round of support is expected from April 2015, which will put many Neighbourhood Plans on hold and increase the chances of speculative applications by developers. Without a Neighbourhood Plan in place, the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF is a window of opportunity for developers to put in planning applications in its absence.  

Examples of policies Transition has championed in Neighbourhood Plans 

The caveat that Neighbourhood Plans must comply with a range of other policies can mean there is little room for manoeuvre to add ‘local flavour’ – although a little imagination from Transition can help provide some innovative solutions for future development.   Some of the more imaginative policies in Neighbourhood Plans, invariably ones that have included Transition in its development, examples include: 

Climate Change
  • Encouraging aspiration for all policies to be carbon neutral or One Planet Living principles (Frome, Bradford on Avon, Ashton on Hayes) 
Housing and commercial sites
  • Aspiring to the Code for Sustainable Homes – Code 4 (Backwell, Lympstone) Code 5 (Felpham, Kirdford) and Code 6 (Chapel-en-le-Frith, from 2016) – encompassing rainwater harvesting, using local materials and wood timber frames
  • Bringing derelict and disused houses back into use (Stratford-on-Avon)
  • Encouraging self-building (FromePetersfield, Teinbridge) and Co-housing (Frome, Petersfield)
  • Prioritising brownfield over greenfield sites (Chapel Parish, Wivelsfield, Tattenhall and District, Malpas) 
  • Setting criteria for new builds to be within walking distance to the town centre (Chapel-en-le-Frith)
  • Encouraging cycle pathways (Frome, Arundel) 
  • Identifying the need for community energy, potential sites and engagement with developers, and invoking the use of a Neighbourhood Development Order (Calne)
  • Ensuring protection of ecosystems through Wildlife Corridors (Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale)
  • Using the Community Infrastructure levy (CIL, 25% for neighbourhoods with a Neighbourhood Plan, 15% without) from new housing to fund renewable energy projects, e.g. district heating or energy efficiency measures (this is something that could be invoked more than it is…) 
  • Encouraging protection or expansion of allotments or community orchards (Exeter St James, Thame, Cringleford)
  • Invoking Tree Preservation Orders (Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale) 
  • Ring-fencing existing industrial and commercial sites to avert land becoming lost to housing developments (Frome) 
However, while a handful of the above policies can be found in some Neighbourhood Plans, the range and depth of these policies is often not captured in one Neighbourhood Plan, with a few notable exceptions.  Above all, Neighbourhood Plans are a reflection of those working on them. While there is some aspiration to build towards Code for Sustainable Homes level 4 (building regulations stipulate level 3 as a minimum) and there is the occasional mention of renewable energy, imaginative and robust alternatives to business-as-usual are lacking in many Neighbourhood Plans. 

There is also the challenge that the government’s enthusiasm for low-carbon development seems to be waning (though the good news is that Europe’s resolve is strengthening).  For instance, the recent reform that scrapped the Code for Sustainable Homes does not help to encourage Neighbourhood Plans to meet the target for zero-carbon homes by 2016, though this is casually alluded to in the NPPF.  If zero-carbon homes are not prioritised in this current drive for new houses, when will it be? If Transition, and similar groups, are not involved in Neighbourhood Plans, the chance of more creative policies being included may be reduced.  

6 Top tips for a low-carbon Neighbourhood Plan 

However, there is still hope yet!  Here are some hints and tips I have picked up from Transitioners whilst doing my research: 

1. Become a key part of any working group that resonates with Transition

If members of Transition want to be involved in the Neighbourhood Plan, the logical first step is to be part of the working group that allows the biggest impact.  This may be a working group on the environment, climate change, sustainability, transport or economy.   In one town, I found that the Transition group had effectively co-opted the sustainability working group as a sub-group of Transition.  While involvement in a working group doesn’t allow you to dictate what the community wants – this needs to be evidenced through community consultation – it does help to encourage principles on which to underpin the Neighbourhood Plan to emerge, for instance permaculture or One Planet Living. 

2. Change the way you see Planning

Neighbourhood Plans offer community groups like Transition a direct way to influence the decisions taken by local government.   Yet even in places where Transition is strong, I found that some Transition members were showing little enthusiasm for Neighbourhood Planning.  Of course, planning is not for everyone but it can be a real opportunity to champion alternative local governance.  

If there was a sufficient critical mass of people in Transition engaged in planning it may help to counter more traditional ways of seeing the world.  This may include suggesting key engagement principles that have worked in Transition, including World CafĂ© to be used as part of the consultation process.  There are also a number of digital engagement methods (at a cost) including StickyWorldand CommonPlace which enable people to contribute their ideas for development on a digital map, helping to meet a younger generation at a time that suits them.  CPRE’s WasteofSpace map for identifying potential brownfield sites across the UK is a useful tool to crowdsource community knowledge for better planning.  

It could also be a useful point to reflect on existing Transition projects that could enhance the Neighbourhood Plan, and what other projects may be needed to have a maximum impact on Planning and the built environment. If you are looking for some inspiration of the potential for Planning to contribute to a more imaginative urban environment from across the world, this Al Jazeera series is a fantastic place to start. 

3. Get developers and planners on your side 

HouseOne of the key challenges for Transition Initiatives engaged in Neighbourhood Planning is working with local councillors who may not understand what Transition is about.  The best way of ensuring that you can influence development is by engaging directly with those sympathetic to Transition, and who have the resources and willingness to act.  One Transition group encouraged smaller-scale developers to agree to wait until the Neighbourhood Plan was approved before submitting any planning applications.  There are also likely to be a number of retired planning professionals or district councillors in your area, finding out who they are and who shares Transition principles could be a real help.  

4. Use it as an opportunity to broaden your network

Neighbourhood Planning is a great way to get to know other people in your community and work with people you may not ordinarily collaborate with.  One of the strategies used by several Transition initiatives I spoke to involved building coalitions with those sympathetic to Transition to invoke a critical mass with shared aspirations.    

However, one of the key challenges I have found in my own research is that this needs to be happening not just at a local level, but much broader than this.  One of the challenges of localism is that it can encourage some communities to work in silos.  Locality has created a Planning Community Knowledge Hub where those involved in Neighbourhood Plans have their own forum to share information.   

However, a simple search reveals that there is no mention of climate, low-carbon and only a couple of mentions of ‘sustainable’.  One individual told me that if they had known what other groups were doing they would have been much more ambitious in their environmental policy.  I personally believe that the impact Neighbourhood Plans could have on sustainable development could be much enhanced if there was greater knowledge-sharing between different environmental groups including Transition, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, CPRE, other low-carbon communities, and Community Land Trusts. 

Such groups could register the policies they worked on and be matched up to other groups looking to do something similar and this could be a way to strengthen the environmental movement and its capacity for demanding low-carbon development. 

5. Use Neighbourhood Plans as an opportunity to transform the way local government works

As I have already mentioned, it helps if you have a sympathetic entry point into local government to increase your influence.  One of the most direct ways is to put yourself forward as a councillor – either at parish, town, district or the county council.  Better still, you may consider following Frome’s example of taking over the council altogether!  The Mayor of Frome, Peter MacFadyen, has written a highly inspiring book Flatpack Democracy – A DIY Guide to Creating Independent Politics and Peter’s 10 tips for revitalising local democracy.   While this is broader than Neighbourhood Planning it is central to creating the inclusive and creative context in which low-carbon development can flourish. 

6. Hold local government to account

If you missed the opportunity to help develop the Neighbourhood Plan, there may still be an opportunity to be consulted during the Local Authority six week consultation – check their website for details.  

When the Neighbourhood Plan is adopted there is a key role to play in ensuring that what was agreed to in the plan is adhered to, continuing to voice the need for greater low-carbon standards, and building up an evidence base for the next revisions to Neighbourhood Plans.  This may involve reviewing Planning applications and ensuring they conform to the Neighbourhood Plan.  

Or if Stickyfingers or other digital maps were used, ensuring these are improving and providing evidence for this.  There will be many community projects that are identified in the community consultation process that may not come under the banner for land use, Transition can play a key role to ensuring that these are taken up and can be used to support Transition objectives.   
One of the key reasons for doing my PhD was that I could help support Transition to have a greater influence on local government.  I hope that this article goes some way towards this goal.  I would also like to applaud those who have worked tirelessly in making their Neighbourhood Plan go that extra mile to make Planning work for the transition to a low-carbon society.  

Please do contact Amy if you would like to further discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or if you have any questions you'd like her to answer, please post them as comments below - she has very kindly agreed to answer them...

*Neighbourhoods are defined as an entire parish or grouping of neighbouring parishes, part of a town, or a specified area within a city or the whole of a smaller settlement.  

Amy Burnett is a PhD Researcher at the Real Estate and Planning Department at the Henley Business School, University of Reading.  Her current research focuses on the role of communities in influencing low-carbon Planning in the context of Neighbourhood Plans.  Amy has worked on a number of community development projects with a particular emphasis on monitoring and evaluation.  Amy's work aims to promote creative and inclusive engagement between community groups and their local government.