Looking beyond land use in neighbourhood planning: What resources should we be scouting for?

By Zoe Savory - on 15/11/2012

HACT's current Housing Intern Zoe Savory discusses the recent 'Building neighbourhoods that people want to live in' HACT workshop and considers how the sector can effectively target investment within their neighbourhood planning agenda.

It seems the World Café is the event format de la saison in UK housing circles, and HACT are very much on-trend. Over the past ten days we’ve played both host and guest at two buzzing World Café afternoons; spinning contacts and conversations among housing providers and community activists alike. Aside from a coffee and chocolate-fuelled sugar rush, what we’ve taken away is a glutinous amount of food for thought, prompted by the insightful discussions and comments jotted down on tablecloths.

The first of these events gave a taste of HACT’s Neighbourhood Planning action-learning program, exploring challenges and opportunities for housing providers in supporting the development of popular and thriving places to live. There were abundant ideas as to how to grasp the opportunities opened up by Neighbourhood Planning. There was talk of traffic flow, local identity and spin-off projects. People spoke of framing an attention-grabbing issue, of making use of social media, of forming and nourishing local networks, of taking the chance to provide learning and employment opportunities for local young people.

Of course, discussions which emerged were far from naïve about some of the risks involved. For housing and development practitioners, fully investing in the process places financial resources and professional reputations at stake. And why should a tenant put their time into a neighbourhood when they may not stay in that place long enough to witness the benefits? As Joe Holyoak of Balsall Heath Forum pointed out, planning is an activity focused on long term neighbourhood sustainability. With imminent pressures, such as the switch to universal credit and squeezed budgets to face up to, you might ask if housing providers and their residents alike can afford to be gazing into the distance.

But does such a question risk overlooking the real strength of the neighbourhood planning process? What also emerged from the day was a sense of optimism that a collaborative approach could produce rewards which more than justified the initial risk. The word ‘partnership’ sprung up regularly at each of the tables. Neighbourhood planning is not a task that can be undertaken alone, and this is a strength rather than a weakness: it is an opportunity for mutual learning among all stakeholders in a place. The process of bringing these parties together to negotiate a shared local vision will inevitably highlight issues, ideas and valuable assets of pressing relevance to activities far beyond land use planning. As noted in a prior blog, residents’ talents are a resource just as valuable as the land beneath their feet. A brilliant note written at one table, which was expertly led by Juliana Ben Salem, chair of Poplar HARCA’s youth empowerment board, read “Invest in me :)”.

With this in mind, it was timely that Locality held a World Café event just six days later, which made the vital link between housing providers and the 500 community organisers being funded by government. Though there were issues to be thought through, HACT found a room full of housing providers keen to seek out and work with the potential which they know is in their neighbourhoods, but which may be below the radar. This energy is precisely what’s needed to support practical solutions to the challenges facing families and communities.

‘Kill Wonga’ was the slogan that kicked off Locality’s event, playfully suggested by Tony Stacey of South Yorkshire Housing Association. Menaces on many high streets, pay-day loan shops are currently a topical controversy in land-use planning. As Matthew Gardiner pointed out in his blog, however, the fact of their existence speaks of local demand for support to supplement household income. Pay-day loan shops are a visible symptom of hard times. Opening up questions about local land use can highlights these issues and how they relate, prompting discussion of locally tailored solutions and alternatives. It brings people together to collaborate, and the results might be quick wins or long-term plans for community resilience.

Investing in neighbourhood planning, or hosting a community organiser, is a brave move to take. It involves an upfront investment and the willingness to let go of some control. The rewards, however, are out there to be grasped. (S)he who dares wins.



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