The use of direct democracy to decide housing site allocations in English neighbourhoods

In this new paper I want to investigate the use of direct democracy to decide the location of new housing in England as part of a suite of participatory practices known as neighbourhood planning. I am not satisfied with the way this topic has been discussed in academic and policy literature and I think there is quite another story to tell.

The policy of neighbourhood planning, introduced in 2011, allowed community associations, town and parish councils to make decisions on local housing allocations and other development as long as their plans were approved by popular referendum. Scholarly attention has focused on normative debate over the standards and procedures of participation in neighbourhood planning. Planning theorists and practitioners contest the legitimacy of representation and engagement when publics take collective action over the allocation of land for new house building.

The popular uptake of neighbourhood planning across 15 per cent of England has sharpened this traditional scepticism towards collective action in planning. Commentators regard the introduction of direct democracy in statutory development plans as empowering private interests in decisions on housing supply. They argue that neighbourhood planning groups are unrepresentative and they are scornful of an average turnout of 35 per cent in neighbourhood referendums.

What I want to do in this new paper is to study neighbourhood planning as democratic practice, without imposing any normative framework or judgement on its political legitimacy. I concentrate on decisions taken over housing supply and housing allocations, and I want to try to understand housebuilding as an object of contention – something that has the power to generate dissent. I am interested in the role of neighbourhood planning groups in both demonstrating this object of concern, and trying to fix it, and demonstrate how it might be made acceptable. Neighbourhood groups aim to represent and construct an idea of community that frames their plans for housing allocations. They try to use participatory forums and public deliberation to mobilise a shared identity or consensus around proposals for housing sites. In participation, individual interests can be transformed into collective identities, but equally collective decisions can be fragmented. The direct democracy of the referendum can frame a range of public mobilisations, as individuals present their interests as public issues against the collective identity of the neighbourhood plan.

It seems to me from my research to date that, despite the intentions of the policy, and contrary to the concerns of planning scholarship,  decisions about housing allocations  remain politically contentious in neighbourhood planning. This is a result of the particular set of democratic practices that are set in motion. In rendering house building an issue of democratic debate, neighbourhood plans expand the space of public scrutiny, evoking new political identities and a heightened sense of political efficacy. The paper points to the emergent quality of the direct democratic practices engaged by neighbourhoods in generating ongoing conflict.

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Neighbourhood planning and the production of spatial knowledge

This paper explores the production of what counts as authoritative knowledge in neighbourhood planning in England. Its aim is to evidence the process through which the intelligibility of place was established in neighbourhood planning  and to chart the exclusions and exceptions through which spatial norms were produced.  It evidences the moderating effect that logics of economic development had in a policy dedicated to the promotion of sustainable development, and, in contrast, it analyses the new expressions of place intelligibility successfully rendered in neighbourhood planning. The paper concludes that the ability of neighbourhood planners to privilege place over logics of development points to a more inclusive and egalitarian approach to the construction of planning knowledge. The paper has been accepted for publication in Town Planning Review. Neighbourhoodplanningandtheproductionofknowledge_final

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The impact of place identity in neighbourhood plans

My latest paper to be published in Planning Theory and Practice discusses how neighbourhood plans represent a sense of place and how a convincing narrative of place impacts on policies for  housing development. It argues that neighbourhood plans invoke the subjectivities of distinctive environments and establish norms of social relations that help determine the acceptability of planning applications.The selection of specific sites for housing, the specification of the size of the development, and policies regulating the mode of delivery, its affordability and relation to local need are evaluated and rationalised in reference to a locally constructed frame of community identity.

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The new normal: is a planning orthodoxy being imposed on neighbourhood plans ?

Does it matter that three neighbourhood plans failed examination last year? With over 2000 neighbourhood plans underway and 240 now passed referendum, are these failures to be expected as the number of plans increases? Or is it, more worryingly, the case that the weight of planning orthodoxy is now being imposed on the voluntary plans of citizens, perhaps driven by the illimitable appetite of developers for legal action against neighbourhood plans? Continue reading

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The impact of neighbourhood planning on house-building

Neighbourhood planning has created opportunities for communities to advance new socially and environmentally sustainable housing solutions that conflict with the interests of corporate house-builders and unsettle the depiction of citizens’ groups as protectionist and opposed to all economic growth.

DSCF1953The emergence of neighbourhood planning in England after 2011 was unusual both in its devolution of statutory planning policy to community organisations and in its explicit intention to reshape the protectionist opposition of citizens into enthusiastic support for housing development.  It was anticipated that giving communities the right to devise neighbourhood development plans would secure their compliance with a pro-growth agenda and increase the number of sites allocated for housing. Neighbourhood planning was an experimental policy at the seismic juncture between localism and the liberalisation of housing growth. Making this policy work meant giving local people real influence over the scale and shape of development and at the same time enabling the volume house-building corporations that dominate the industry in England to access land and gain planning approval more easily.

A new paper to be published in Housing Theory and Society later this year, written by me and my colleague William Sparling, explores the conflict that emerged between neighbourhoods and the volume house-builders and analyses government responses. It then identifies the distinctive spatial practices that are emerging in neighbourhood plans with regard to housing delivery and evaluates the impact of neighbourhood planning on the dominant market model of house-building. The paper concludes with an assessment of the contribution of neighbourhood planning to housing delivery and its significance in understanding the tensions inherent in the state strategy of localism. Download the full article free: Neighbourhood planning and house-building_final

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The Housing Crisis Weaponised

The government does not intend to solve our housing crisis. Instead it aims to use the housing crisis as a weapon of policy against the beliefs and attitudes that sustain a welfare state.

Much of the attack on the welfare state has been about constructing a new common sense view in which the private market is the only really fair system of distributing goods and rewards. It is seen as unfair when people don’t pay their way – meaning when they don’t pay market prices they seem to get something for nothing.

This common sense says that housing benefit is unfair, we are told, because it allows some people to live in expensive neighbourhoods without paying for it. The message is that if you can’t afford to live in nice places, you shouldn’t live there – it’s as simple as that.  As a result housing benefit has been cut back and capped, and the fairness of the housing market has been reasserted, with house prices fairly keeping the nicest and most expensive areas – and those parts of the country where homes are most in demand – out of the reach of anyone who is not already very well-off.

The Housing and Planning Bill makes that message of fairness even more explicit. Continue reading

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A Passion for Place

Planning scholarship tends to shy away from the emotional realm and planners in practice assert their distance from attachment. The policy of neighbourhood planning in England is unusual in that it addresses people’s emotional commitment to place, or their place attachment.


Human geographers would argue that the relationship with place is largely unconscious and is felt in the bones. Place is not a backdrop or a setting from which we stand distinct; instead emplacement, like embodiment, is a condition of being. Although individuals are confronted with a reality of place ‘out there’, which they may invest in meaning for themselves, places are already imbued with meanings that govern expected behaviour and social interaction. We talk about people being put in their place. Place is tied up with power relations and behavioural norms. Continue reading

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The New Patchwork Politics of Place

Building Sustainable Futures-

Building Sustainable Futures

In a new book ‘Building Sustainable Futures‘ edited by Dastbaz and Strange and published by Springer 2015 I contribute a chapter on neighbourhood planning and sustainable communities.

The concept of sustainable communities has come to define a particular type of governance in which responsibility for ameliorating the impact of economic growth is devolved to place-based voluntary and community associations. The community provides a model of sustainability in which the economics of collective consumption and the politics of community action can be engaged in the planning and stewardship of local development. The strategies of sustainable communities that result combine the market zeal of spatial liberalism with themes of redistributive justice and equality.  In the concept of community they find both a model of resilience and self-reliance and conversely a dynamic of mutual aid and co-operation.

My chapter identifies these competing strands in government strategies for sustainable communities in England and particularly the programme of neighbourhood planning introduced from 2011.  Together with my co-author, David Haigh, I argue that through neighbourhood planning responsibility for achieving environmental and social sustainability was largely abandoned by the state and relegated to the domestic networks of the community.  We explore the definition of sustainability that emerged from communities and their neighbourhood plans, one in which the priorities of environmental quality and the welfare needs of social reproduction were pursued through a Hobson’s choice of economic growth or self-reliance. In attempts by neighbourhood planning groups to establish innovative strategies of participation and community management we evidence the continuance of claims of redistribution and spatial equality in the concept of sustainability and in this unequal geography of community initiatives, we chart the development of a new patchwork politics of place. Building Sustainable Futures chapter_Final

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Neighbourhood plans against developers

The policy intention of neighbourhood planning in England was to overcome community opposition to house-building. It was anticipated that neighbourhood plans would increase the number of sites allocated for housing by giving communities more influence over the shape of development in exchange for their compliance with a pro-growth agenda. By the end of 2015, with over 100 neighbourhood plans in place and a further 1700 underway, the government announced the success of the policy in increasing housing allocations by more than 10 per cent. Continue reading

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Planning workshop helps Leeds neighbourhoods shape their future

Around 40 people from neighbourhood planning groups across Leeds took part in an innovative knowledge exchange workshop organised by Leeds Beckett University’s Planning Network on 7 November.

20 Neighbourhood Planning groups attend workshop

20 Neighbourhood Planning groups attend workshop

The workshop was organised by Leeds Planning Network, a new research cluster set up by the School of the Built Environment and Engineering supported by the Centre for Knowledge Exchange.

Quintin Bradley, Senior Lecturer in Planning at Leeds Beckett University, said: “This workshop is the first in a series of events in which we aim to help local people in Leeds get a real say in the future of their neighbourhoods.” Continue reading

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