21 August 2012

Planning for Localism; a Community Workshop in Elmbridge

The Coalition’s flagship Localism Act 2011 aims to make planning decisions more democratic and more efficient by involving local communities in local planning policy.

Elmbridge Borough Council, in affluent North Surrey, recently hosted a community workshop event to ask residents of Molesey what sort of development they’d like and where the council should be investing money from the Community Infrastructure Levy, or CIL.

Architect and Studio 425 member John Inglis attended the event at Mole Hall, both as a former resident of Molesey and as an architect who has designed buildings for a number of development sites in the borough of Elmbridge. Also in attendance were local planning officers, elected councillors, local residents and a planning professional from Wates Development, whose association with the town dates back over 50 years.

Following an introduction to the Localism Act 2011 and the role of Investment and Development Plans within Elmbridge’s Core Strategy and planning policy framework, the attendees divided into groups of 5 or 6 for the workshops proper. Each group discussed what land uses they felt were suitable for Molesey in general, what uses they’d like to see on specific development sites and how they’d choose the spend money from the Community Infrastructure Levy, whereby developers provide investment for the local community’s benefit.

So, what did the people attending say about planning and development on their doorstep?

Some issues were raised independently in all the workshop groups. Provision of parking and road congestion were common concerns, which were heightened where new development was concerned. The compatibility of light industry and commercial vehicles with residential roads was also questioned repeatedly, particularly by residents bordering the Imber Court Industrial Estate.

There was also interest and some confusion about how future demand for school places is calculated. This was prompted by the question of the John Nightingale site, a vacant parcel of land that used to house a school. The local officers advised that school place demand was forecast by Surrey County Council and was a fairly technical and specialist field.

Perhaps surprisingly, other issues were not raised, or when prompted by the hosts, were seen as very low priority in the resident dominated workshops. The principle of providing new housing was not widely supported, nor was the principle of providing employment. The assumption that Molesey’s two industrial estates attracted employees from outside the settlement boundary was used to suggest that employment uses were superfluous to local needs.

Affordable housing was only discussed amid concerns about loss of neighbourhood character and blight on property values. Despite Molesey’s generous provision of allotments, there was no Transition-style emphasis on local food production or the lack of explicit protection for existing allotment gardens. Neither was there any mention of Grant Shapps' support for self builders.
Perhaps most surprising, given the concerns over congestion, there was no vocal support for public transport. Likewise, despite Molesey itself being popular with families, there was no discussion of sports facilities or youth services. When introduced to the Community Infrastructure Levy, whereby new developments can fund community-directed investments, one group at least felt they had no need for it.

Was the workshop effective in engaging the community?

In closing some attendees complained about how the event was publicised, despite a commendable and personable attempt by Elmbridge’s local planning officers to personally invite people who had recently shown an interest in local planning matters. Any readers who have  hosted consultation events themselves will appreciate the irony of people complaining about poor publicity, when they themselves have learned of the event and managed to attend.

While a reasonable turnout was achieved, there wasn't necessarily a representative turn-out of local people or local views. Many local residents were either with active residents association or living near current development sites such as Imber Court Industrial Estate. The event might have been very different had it included more local businesses such as shop-owners, local sports groups such as Molesey Juniors Football Club or Molesey Boat Club or locally active service providers such as teachers and librarians or volunteer groups like the Cinnamon Trust or organisers of the annual MoleseyCarnival.

The emphasis on existing local home-owners also potentially excludes the type of people most likely to support new housing developments. How existing tenants can be encouraged to join the discussion is not yet clear. Given that most new homes would be sold to first time buyers who don't yet know live in Molesey, it would be even harder to engage them as a demographic group. This challenge is arguably an inherent feature of the Localism agenda, rather than a local oversight by Elmbridge.

How will the workshop affect local planning applications?

To quote Elmbridge’s website, the consultation will influence the Investment and Development Plan for East and West Molesey, which will

“allocate sites for development . . .  including for housing, retail, commercial, education and gypsies, travellers and travelling showpeople. (It) will also designate sites to be protected, including Strategic Employment Land, Local Green Space, Strategic Open Urban Land and Suitable Accessible Natural Greenspace. Each Plan will include a list of priorities for infrastructure improvements considered important to support new development in that area.”

In effect the Investment and Development Plan will earmark certain sites for certain new uses, whilst preserving the uses of other sites and guiding how the Community Infrastructure Levy is used.
However, these aims didn’t quite tally with the conversations on the ground, which focussed on County Council level issues such as parking, congestion and forecasting demand for schools, which are beyond the borough council’s remit. The confusion over who controlled which areas of local life and what could really be addressed through planning policy suggested a lack of relevant experience among those attending.

While involving non-professionals may be the point of a community consultation, it doesn’t bode well for how effective the whole process will be or how satisfied the participants will be with the result.

More democratic and more efficient?

The Localism Act 2011 aims to make the planning process "more democratic and more efficient." Based on this one event, however, there are some question marks about how local communities can be engaged in a democratic and representative way and whether such a process is inherently more efficient.

The workshop was certainly successful in engaging one section of a local community, but the areas they’d like to influence, aren’t those that are currently up for grabs. A lack of familiarity with the town planning process is clearly a barrier an ‘efficient’ dialogue between borough councils and the communities they serve.

Whether these question marks are simple teething problems for a council that is eager to embrace the Localism agenda or an inherent obstacle lurking within the Localism Act itself remains to be seen.

Post script:
If you would like to be involved in the Elmbridge’s Investment and Development Plans, you can email tplan@elmbridge.gov.uk for more information.

Photo credits, many thanks to;