There are two questions to which we will only really know the answers once the Localism Bill is enacted. Do the Government really want to hand power to the people; and do the people really want it?
In my opinion, if it really meant it, the Government would be investing in the local bodies to which power would be transferred – primarily local authorities - rather than cutting the resources on which their capacity and capability depend. The assertion that the Bill heralds a new era of “bottom-up” plan making is disingenuous and it looks like cost-saving to me.
Obstacles to local determination
It remains the case, however, that what the Government is actually doing is conferring powers. The power to actually use them depends on having control of resources, and no English Government has ever transferred that to its local counterparts.
The structure of local government is a much greater obstacle to greater participation and a more effective planning system than the Planning Acts. That is too big an issue to develop here, just as it has been too big for any recent government to countenance, but local government reorganisation remains the greatest opportunity to cut costs and bureaucracy and strengthen democratic representation, whether it’s representative or participatory.
Will people seize the opportunity?
Having said that, the seriousness with which the Government has responded to those offering ways of making this hastily prepared Bill work, through the successive Committee and Report stages, has been impressive. So I will concentrate on the second question. If the Government does really mean it, and is prepared to see a substantial transfer of responsibility to people locally, how can we help them recognise, accept and embrace such responsibility?
The trouble for the Government is that the more amendments to the Bill it accepts, the closer it returns to the status quo, and the acknowledgement that if we really want to engage people in determining the future of their locality, there is little that can’t actually be done under present planning legislation.
There has been much discussion in the Bill Committee stages of accountability – who will be accountable and to whom? How do we ensure that the level of democracy in local planning at present is secured for neighbourhood planning, particularly for the 65% of England’s population that is ‘unparished’? How do we provide the methods, and of course the resources, to enable people to accept these new responsibilities in a spirit of active civic pride and duty rather than reactive protectionism and self-interest? The emphasis of recent Governments has been on greater choice – that is individual choice – and has encouraged the pursuit of self-interest to sometimes extraordinary ends. How do we persuade people who have been exhorted to ‘choose’ the service that best suits their personal circumstances to start acting in the interests of themselves as part of a wider community?
Clarity of purpose and practice will be essential, but there are a number of essential concepts that still have no clear definition in the new context. Community, Neighbourhood, Local, even Planning will need better and singular definition if we are to avoid endless argument and dissent at later stages. A Government spokesman said that the Bill was prepared without a definition of sustainability. How such a complex Bill could be prepared without at least a working definition of such a key concept is beyond me, but the definition eventually came, presumably informed by consultation:
Our approach to sustainable development involves making the necessary decisions now to realise our vision of stimulating economic growth and tackling the deficit, maximising wellbeing and protecting our environment, without negatively impacting on the ability of future generations to do the same. The three 'pillars' of the economy, society and environment are interconnected. Our long-term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it, and paying due regard to social needs. [my emphasis] (Government Statement 14 June 2011)
The primacy of economic growth in the triad of economy, society and environment is at least now explicit. Some will argue that sustained growth is not essential, and others that continual growth is a recipe for continuing inequality in the short term and environmental disaster in the long term.
Making the most of the opportunity
We have to remain optimistic that sense will prevail before it is too late, and in the meantime make the most of the present political focus on community engagement in the planning process. Many have worked long and tirelessly to encourage and improve engagement and there is a huge amount of experience and good practice to be tapped.
If this is to help inform a mass movement towards localism, it will have to be used consistently and fairly. The Minister, Greg Clarke, acknowledged in Committee that a “model constitution” might promote good practice and consistency in neighbourhood planning without unreasonably constraining local activity.
I offer a set of guiding principles which could help to secure a level of consistency and probity on which the credibility of the new localism will depend:
- A neighbourhood can be defined only by the people who share it.
- Everyone should be able to participate in planning their neighbourhood.
- The relationship with the wider context must be understood and acknowledged.
- Decisions based on the neighbourhood plan must be reasonable, transparent and consistent.
- Resources required of and for neighbourhoods must be collected and allocated fairly and openly.
- The process of neighbourhood planning must be sustained.
These principles would allow people the greatest scope for influencing the future of their area without compromising wider aspirations and obligations. If all plans followed such principles, there is a much better chance that they will be mutually supportive, and will combine to support strategic decisions as well.
Exploiting historic precedent
Fostering greater awareness and appreciation of the heritage of their place – a neighbourhood, village, town – may be one way of encouraging people to accept the ‘new’ responsibilities. It may also offer insights for local groups – parish and town councils or neighbourhood forums – seeking ways of setting their ‘community’ on a route to meeting current and future needs in a sustainable manner.
Our built heritage contributes to the health and wealth of a community in many ways. It contributes to the environmental quality, character and distinctiveness of places. It is one of the ways in which a community defines and recognises itself – establishing its identity. It offers cultural interest, educational insight and recreational opportunity. It stimulates direct and indirect economic activity. It represents continuity, stability and security, and it promotes a sense of belonging. I will come back to some of these later, but I want to explore this key concept of belonging first, because I think it is fundamental.
The importance of belonging
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs1 was devised in the 1940s to explain the basis of sound mental health in humans. It’s fallen in and out of favour since then but, having come across it again recently, I think it informs the purpose of community planning very well.
Any community, however we define it, has first to secure the resources necessary to sustain life – the lives of its current and future members. After that it needs to protect these resources, to ensure they remain available and uncorrupted for the foreseeable future. The next need in the hierarchy is love and belonging. Now at a community level we don’t necessarily have to love our neighbour, but we do need to feel that we have interests in common. We generally feel more comfortable, safer and secure, if we feel that we belong to the same place, to the same group, as others around us. We are more likely to invest our time in securing our own needs through co-operating with others if we recognise a commonality of interests and the economy of effort. The history of our locality can offer evidence of such co-operation in the past, or the consequences of its absence.
Building on this sense of belonging, the Hierarchy next identifies the need for esteem – self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others. These are surely the characteristics we would want see reflected in our own neighbourhood plan. Finally, building on self-esteem, the Hierarchy identifies self-actualisation (Maslow was American) – morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. These are surely the characteristics of the community we would all like to live in - achieving the greatest potential well-being and fulfilment for the greatest number.
Historic evidence of community health
Our built heritage offers examples of such qualities embedded in buildings, places and landscapes; and I’m afraid, all too often, we also have examples of their opposites – meanness, self-serving, prejudice and exclusiveness.
By starting our neighbourhood planning activities with an appreciation of what we have – how it came about and what values it represents (positive and negative) - we can set a course for the future which protects what is good, and looks for ways of replacing what isn’t. We can appreciate better the benefits of planning ahead (as opposed to simply meeting immediate needs) if we are able to identify and value the heritage that our predecessors left us. This comprises different kinds of heritage: that which was designed and constructed to reflect a faith in the future – our great churches, houses and public buildings; those that were built to withstand natural or human attack - harbours, fortifications, walls; those built to accommodate great forces – our industrial and transport heritage; and places that have survived simply because successive generations have found them attractive, useful and durable. So for different reasons they have survived, and the longer they have survived the stronger our affinity with them.
The communal value of historic places
So I return now to the qualities of such places that can inform neighbourhood planning by helping people to feel they have a share in the heritage value of the locality, whoever actually owns it.
We cannot begin to plan a neighbourhood until we have defined the boundaries of the area to be planned for. This may not be straightforward. In a district of a town or city, perceptions of neighbourhoods may overlap; groups within the community (however we eventually define it) may want to associate or dissociate with particular places or areas. Historical identity can provide a discrete boundary, or at least a holding definition of one for proceeding in the absence of consensus. It may actually offer examples of how such issues have been overcome in the past. A strong physical identity can help to draw disparate communities together.
The principles of communal responsibility, crafted in different periods and circumstances, have proved a sustainable and inspirational model. Historic phases of development and redevelopment of the places they inhabit can help local people to define and explain the nature of their place and their sense of belonging. Historic features are distinctive and instantly recognisable – not only to local people, but to a wider community of interest. The historic names of places become part of local history and the way that communities define their place. This can help strengthen the local sense of identity within a future neighbourhood plan area. In all these ways the explanation of the identity of places can inform arguments about boundaries between them – arguments that will have to be resolved before Plans can proceed.
The greater the evidence of time-depth of a place, the greater the sense of stability and security that contributes to belonging. Generally speaking, the longer a place has prospered, the more likely it is to continue to do so. Buildings that continue to serve the occupiers for which they were built, particularly local or national institutions, can provide a reassuring sense of familiarity. Places that contain buildings and spaces reflecting successive periods of history offer not only a distinctive backdrop to present day activity, but a sense of stability. Much of our surviving heritage has done so because its qualities are highly valued. It sometimes represents earlier periods of civic pride and high ideals to which present and future communities may aspire. Such features in areas of currently low investment and wealth can suggest that present difficulties are temporary, and the seeds of success remain to be reawakened.
Heritage interests have gained an unfortunate reputation, sometimes justified, for being an obstacle to the necessary changes we need to make to accommodate present and anticipated needs. On the whole, our historic buildings and places survive largely because they have proved structurally and organisationally responsive to changing requirements of successive generations. Our heritage is not just interesting and attractive, but useful. Just because places may now be protected in some way - as conservation areas, listed buildings, designed landscapes – this cannot mean that such adaptability is no longer important or appropriate.
Keeping our heritage in use is the best way of keeping it – attracting the investment necessary to repair and maintain that which is historically significant. Adaptation is also efficient. A great deal of effort, money and energy is embodied in our historic places. We can minimise our reliance on additional energy by re-using that which we have inherited rather than tearing it down and starting anew. Older buildings may not meet current energy efficiency standards (although it’s not usually as difficult or expensive as people think), but understanding what is most historically significant about a place can inform the best ways of improving its performance. New methods and materials, and the rediscovery of old ones, are offering more ways of improving places without harming their heritage values. Understanding where the heritage values lie in an historic place helps us to find ways of making the fullest use of the site
Maslow defines esteem as comprising, among other things, respect of and for others. Our healthiest communities are likely to be the most diverse, living in environments that can accommodate the needs of self-defining different communities by sharing space and amenities. Our heritage offers examples of how diverse interests have occupied, co-incidentally or sequentially, the places where we now live. The time-depth of a place is the heritage equivalent of ecological diversity – it is evidence of sustained existence. Finding new ways of using places that accord with the community’s appreciation of its historic significance will require sensitivity and creativity, but the fact that it has been done before, and the quality of what has been achieved, offers guidance and inspiration.
Our heritage also demonstrates how exclusivity has eventually to be modulated in the interests of long-term survival. The past wealth of some individuals, families, businesses and communities is reflected in our most spectacular heritage, but little that remains is still in exclusive use. Our great houses depend on a commonality of interests - embracing the visiting public, charitable status or commercial activity to avoid dereliction. Great public buildings, built on the contributions of commerce and industry, depend now on public (and in future possibly community) finance to support them.
More remarkable is the ubiquity and variety of our heritage. Its diversity reflects the differences of time, of place, of people that shaped it and modified it. In a time when the design, construction and financing of our buildings is undertaken remotely, and constrained by increasing standardisation and regulation, this complexity is a fascinating and informative resource.
Heritage and sustainability
So the ways in which our built heritage can strengthen a sense of belonging within a community falls into these four main categories – identity, continuity, adaptability and diversity. But to go back to my question, will people be willing, even if thus prepared, to accept the greater responsibility for the future of their area that Localism claims to offer?
We will only ensure that communities engage with the new planning regime, and exploit the potential offered by the Localism Bill, if their members can be persuaded of the benefits of accepting such responsibility. To achieve that, we will have to demonstrate that their public and private interests are actually pretty similar, that the qualities of their environment, in particular its heritage, make an important contribution to the sense of belonging they feel, or that they could feel. Because these attributes are common to everyone’s appreciation of their physical environment, irrespective of ownership, it is easier to assert that the community to which they belong shares a commonality of interests.
To stimulate this sense of belonging and common interest we have to help people understand and appreciate the ways in which the place they occupy came to be the way it is, and the successes and failures that shaped it. To achieve this, those of us engaged in promoting the care of our built heritage have to remove the perceptual obstacles of heritage as nostalgic or regretful. We have to demonstrate its relevance to a future-orientated society. We might then persuade people to take responsibility for planning the future of their neighbourhood by capturing their emotional attachment to it, and helping them to articulate that attachment communally. In doing so we will help people to use their local heritage as a sound basis for informed, reliable and truly sustainable development.
©Steven Bee Urban Counsel
1 Abraham Maslow Motivation and Personality 1954