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To a More Ambitious Place: Do we accept the status quo in place? Think piece #2

Posted on 16 March 2015

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By Sir Tom Shebbeare

An amateur planner: asset or a hazard?

Challenging the status quo by using the tool of neighbourhood planning could involve making amateur planners of us all. But are we an asset or a hazard?

I’m 63 and until very recently had never been involved with planning – although the concept of ‘place-making’ has always had appeal; you know it when you see it! But three years ago, faced with plans for 600 new houses in a Vale of White Horse village of just 1000 homes, I decided to show an active, probably over-active, interest. This, very briefly, is my experience of an adventure into the status quo of placemaking.

Ours is a much more mixed community than the ‘Oxfordshire Village’ might imply – with a large and poorly integrated chunk of 1950s council housing stuck one side of the former A34 and a more affluent conservation area well hidden on the other. The result is a poor demonstration of the planner’s art. The naked truth is that placemaking was an accidental business which preceded the planners and which is only now being relearnt.

Faced with the option of leaving things to the professionals it took a group of ten of us – 50 per cent from the Parish Council and 50 per cent from a village charity – just minutes to decide that we’d create our own ambitious Plan (a Neighbourhood Development Plan in the jargon). It’s taken three years, thousands of hours and hundreds of folk involved in every sort of consultation imaginable. Here, in a nutshell, is what we’ve discovered.

It’s now unimaginable that we’d ever go back to the old system whereby landowners, developers and planners agree things between themselves. Add ‘the folk who live here’ to this cocktail and everything changes – most of it for the better.

Our four-way coalition has been local democracy in action and consequentially difficult. But the result – including 254 new homes to be built over 16 years – has been achieved by consensus (91% in favour on a Referendum turnout of 34% just last week).

Our partners, and in particular the developers and planners, are unanimous that the new ‘super bits of village’ which we have designed together are simply better places than if the professionals had been left to their own devices. The ‘amateurs’ may have been aggravating or worse but the professionals have certainly enjoyed the experience. ‘What I came in to this business to do’ would be a typical assessment.

Planning legislation and the way it is applied in practice makes it almost incomprehensible to outsiders. We have a community that has thrown up professional people of all disciplines and we have an outstanding Parish Clerk. Without them we would have been lost. Things can certainly be made more transparent and user-friendly and some of the interminable jargon eliminated; planning is not something best left to university trained professionals.

The next phase of Neighbourhood Planning methodology must find ways in which less than 600 pages of NDP Report and Appendices are required for examination by the independent examiner. These were written by us, amateurs, on the insistence of professionals. They were read in their entirety by less than a dozen individuals.

Our three-year investment has been achieved on a shoestring (somehow most of the government cash stuck to the local authority), but has left behind a plan and a ‘can-do’ climate in our community that could not have been achieved pre-localism. By responding to the status quo, we have changed things for the community.

And to the question about the hazards of amateur planners I would simply say that planning is too serious a matter to be left exclusively to the professionals. Us amateurs, are once again, essential ingredients.

Sir Tom Shebbeare is Chairman of Virgin Money Giving, Virgin StartUp and Spring Films Ltd. Tom also chairs the board of the Royal Parks Foundation, and until 2011, was Director of The Prince’s Charities, the largest multi-cause enterprise in the UK.