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.

Neighbourhood planning provides local communities with an authorised institutional discourse through which the attachments of place can be represented in development planning, and, particularly, reflected in plans for house-building. Neighbourhood plans that have been adopted by popular referendum can, arguably, be read, both as planning policy and as discourses of place attachment. They have been collated from views generated in public engagement, edited and amplified by local residents in working groups, and amended and drafted into planning policy by a community steering group. As development plans they construct an evidence base and rationale for specific planning policy – especially policy on house-building – that is framed by a collective identification of place and community.   Neighbourhood plans provide a text through which the social construction of place and community can be read and analysed, and where the influence of place attachment and place identity on planning policy for house-building may be discerned and scrutinised.

My article originates the concept of place identity frames to analyse the representations of place in neighbourhood development plans for housing. A place identity frame is multi-dimensional in that it does not only assert a common identification of place but forges a connection between place characteristics and social interactions and affiliations, or a community identity. Those authoring the neighbourhood plan seek to encode place with specific social meanings that legitimise and normalise a defined set of spatial practices. These in turn, provide the rationale for planning policies that seek to determine land use and prescribe the regulation of development planning. Place identity frames are a negotiation rather than a defined agreement, but the requirement to win popular support in a referendum means that a  neighbourhood plan must assemble a resonant frame of community identity from the diverse place meanings expressed in consultation and engagement with residents. The process of negotiation that contributed to this assemblage, and an indication of the plurality of voices and place meanings expressed, can be evidenced with reference to the community consultation statements produced to accompany the neighbourhood plan.

In urban areas, it can be argued that place identity frames are a project of manufactured unity in which a coherent vision of place is distilled from discordant views, potentially to mobilise a population despite tensions and divisions. In more rural communities, where the voter turnout in neighbourhood plan referenda has been as high as 69 per cent, the place identity frame might serve to amplify a shared sense of place and enhance feelings of belonging and capability. Symbols of place identification can be mobilised to suture conflict, bestow value and civic belonging, invite new beginnings and inspire a sense of collective efficacy.

Neighbourhood plans appear to win community support because they resonate with a specific rendering of the subjectivities of place and social identity. They marshal the symbolic representation of an emplaced public, and apply a social construction of community identity as the evidence base and rationale for the regulation of housing supply. The location and size of development, and more broadly the mode of housing delivery, its affordability, residential mix and relation to locally expressed housing need are measured against a collectively assembled image of the cultural relations of place. The resulting policies enable housing development within a policy framework that seeks to balance the requirement for economic growth with environmental and social priorities in the location, mode of delivery, and affordability of new homes.

Neighbourhood planning signals a conflict over the value and meaning of place and over the social relations prescribed by a housing market dominated by speculative building practices. It asserts that the social, material and institutional structures of housing should function through our sense of place and community, and not the other way around. Read the full article here NeighbourhoodPlanning&PlaceIdentity_final.

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