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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