Public Consultation + Political Engagement

Neighbourhood Plans: Democracy in Action

One of Winston Churchill’s statements, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest”, has stood the test of time over many years. He wasn’t, of course, talking about Neighbourhood Plans, but is it applicable to them?

The Department for Communities and Local Government has stated the rationale behind Neighbourhood Plans is that ‘People have the right to get involved in development decisions that affect them but in practice they have often found it difficult to have a meaningful say.’ Few politicians would be willing to argue against giving local people a greater input in what affects their area, and we now have significant democratic input in the planning process through from our national representatives, all the way down to local communities. Regardless of how this system works, it is a process developers will have to work with on future developments.

It is no secret, however, that the Government wants to see more development, particularly of housing, where there is a target for 200,000 new-starter homes per year alone. The Government is also putting pressure on local authorities to develop and implement Local Plans in order to identify sites. The implementation of Local Plans should smooth out the process and allow applications to be considered quicker, but, especially in larger authorities, there can still be some detachment and perceived distance from the council and immediate residents close to the site, which Neighbourhood Plans seek to engage.

As highlighted by Planning Resource, there have been 80 neighbourhood plan referendums since the Localism Act came into effect. Voter turnout has been broadly similar to that of local elections, which are often held on the same day. This has led to concerns that low turnout for referendums can allow a minority of residents to have a substantial say on development in an area, essentially vetoing an application. There is no doubt that low voter turnout can be an issue in any democratic process, but consultation and stakeholder engagement provides developers with an opportunity to plug this gap and give local people a chance to have an input on development in their area, regardless of their involvement in the Neighbourhood Plan process. In addition, the enhanced powers now given to local communities make engagement with local stakeholders who were involved in developing Neighbourhood Plans even more necessary.

If the current system works as it should, it gives developers policy guidance from the top of the system to the very bottom, but, much like democracy itself, it raises a number of important issues about who really participates and the rationale behind policies. The advantage developers have is that good quality communication allows them an extra chance to engage with local residents. It is commonly known that the objectors are the ones who shout the loudest, and engaging with those residents who wouldn’t normally get involved can make or break the success of an application.

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