Green Belt – a capacity to engage

Green Belt is an environmental designation internationally adopted by spatial planning regimes, and famously associated with the arousal of passionately loyal identification. The passions aroused by Green Belt are often disparaged by the planning profession, but the capacity to arouse public concern is a political accomplishment and one essential to the organisation of democracy.

The practices of town planning articulate public concern for matters of heritage, conservation, and sustainability – among many other issues – and they create objects and settings, the listed buildings, the national parks, the plans and development regulations that organise and demonstrate that concern. These settings become the focus for public engagement; as material things they participate in the organisation of political publics and what Metzger (2013a: 783) called ‘their collective becoming’, or public identification with the spaces of political governance.

This paper investigates the ‘powers of engagement’ (Marres, 2012: 106) invested in Green Belt and explores the work done to engage publics in political debate and to orient them towards the settings of democratic governance. It seeks to contribute to an emerging literature on material participation that asks how non-human entities can be understood to organise and mobilise publics. The paper presents a case study of the performative agency of Green Belt in mobilising publics around a new regional tier of government in North West England, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In late 2016 the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework  set out proposals to allocate Green Belt land for development to enable sub-regional economic growth. In research with the publics mobilised by this threat  the paper explores the capacity of Green Belt to inspire public engagement in the Combined Authority and in competing visions of its future. Read the full paper here:
Combined authorities and material participation the capacity of green belt

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Public support for Green Belt: common rights in countryside access and recreation

Public support for Green Belt is legendary. It is unquestionably the most popular planning policy, and perhaps the only one that is readily recognised and fiercely defended.  This passionate support is often dismissed as sentiment or as an attachment to a rural idyll. In this new paper I want to locate public support for Green Belt within a specific cultural landscape of outdoor recreation and a particular history of common rights and access campaigns. This paper contends that Green Belt in England carries notions of common rights established in struggles against the physical enclosure and privatisation of open spaces from the early 19th Century and predicated on an understanding that the policy conveys a communal interest in land and landscape. It argues that contemporary public affection for Green Belts is generated and expressed through practices of ‘commoning’ or the performance of claimed common rights of property. Drawing on extensive field research with a mass popular campaign in North West England, the paper evidences the deployment of a history of access struggles to preserve Green Belt as recreational amenity and accessible countryside. In the perception of Green Belt as a common resource and in its performance as social ‘nature’ the paper posits the continuing relevance of common rights to planning policy. It concludes that a clearer understanding of popular support for Green Belt may provide planning scholarship with new perspectives on notions of public good and the use rights of property. Read the full paper here PublicSupportforGreenBelt_full

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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. Read the full paper here: The use of direct democracy to decide housing site allocations in English neighbourhoods_final_full

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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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