The desire for autonomy, for self-organisation and self-management, has been a persistent thread in the history of community action in England, as it has been in social movements across the world. The foundation of self-governing communities by religious and political dissenters in the 16th and 17th Centuries found reflection in the co-operatives, communes and mutual aid societies that signalled the making of a working class movement, and the tradition of informal settlements and community self-build that has continued into the present day. This tradition of dissident autonomy has been consistently captured and incorporated into the institutional processes and structures of the state and the market relations of capital. In its manifestation as an active and engaged civil society it has been enlisted in the privatisation and outsourcing of public services, the fragmentation of organised labour, the policing of behaviour, and the rejuvenation of moribund hierarchies through the assimilation of local knowledge. Promises of territorial autonomy made to community organisations provide the populist accompaniment to the commodification of the local as the base unit of a reordered society; a self-governing entity liberated by the dismantling of welfare systems and the de-regulation of markets. The autonomous neighbourhood is a potent symbol for the cause of liberalism and for its dissenters. It remains a site of potential conflict over definitions of freedom and empowerment.
The Localism Act (2011) in England marked a control-shift in state spatial strategies. Its response to grass-roots planning protest was to grant statutory planning powers to neighbourhoods within a bounded system of exclusions aimed to domesticate their contentions and negate their impact on the trajectory of economic development. Plan-making powers were awarded to the very local scale of government, the mostly rural town and parish councils, to formalise and give legal weight to an existing infrastructure of community plans and village design statements. The innovation in spatial strategy of the Localism Act was in legitimising the claims to self-governance of community organisations in urban neighbourhoods, and in providing legal recognition to the urban neighbourhood as a potential planning polity. Neighbourhood planning acknowledged the limits of inclusion, and the need for democratic spaces that were protected from the hegemony of technical rationality. It effectively established a territorial reservation for collective participation in planning and contained it within the supposedly benevolent state systems of rationalism and representation. Boundary conditions were laid down to define the parameters of what could be conceived and delivered under these neighbourhood plans. These boundary conditions required neighbourhoods to conform to national and municipal strategic planning policies except where enabling more, but not less, development. They established a statutory consultation process that included external examination and formal referendum. Municipal planning authorities were empowered to rule on the boundaries of the neighbourhood plan and adjudicate on boundary conditions, and in urban areas they were granted the power to designate, or legally recognise, the right of community organisations to claim representation as a neighbourhood forum. Neighbourhood plans that conformed to these boundary conditions and were approved by popular referendum became statutory instruments as part of the local development framework. Within these boundaries collective participation in planning decisions acquired a narrow political domain where the decisions of professionals and the edicts of hierarchical power could be challenged legitimately and distinct collective identities might emerge.
The boundaries of neighbourhood planning returned control over the processes, quality and outcomes of community engagement to the community. They marked out the permissions and restrictions of collective participation as a political process that cited the right of autonomous citizen groups to speak for themselves. This regulatory framework defined a political confrontation between adversaries. It established the legitimacy of the neighbourhood, instituted its subordination, and specified the political practices of adversarial opposition it could engage in. All the antagonism inherent in the unequal system of land, property and planning decisions became concentrated in a set of regulations or boundary conditions implemented and arbitrated by the local planning authority. At the boundaries of neighbourhood planning the conditions for a democratic politics of planning became possible.