Sunday, 6 March 2011

Neighbourhood Planning

The Linkedin network site has a group discussing Neighbourhood Planning as its scope under the provisions of the ConDem Localism Bill. A question has been posed about the basis on whihc a neighbourhood can be defined. My thoughts on this are too long to post as a comment on the group. Therefore I am publishing it as a blog.

What is a Neighbourhood?

There is often no consensus on what a neighbourhood is. Depending on local history, road and rail layout, natural geographic features, and the perception of local residents, a neighbourhood might be an estate, part of an estate, a small number of streets, or a large number of streets.

Every resident's concept of what their neighbourhood is will be very personal and different. They are more than likely to differ from the concept based on alleged rational, objective observation such as a map or a five minute walk.

On the alleged rational objective criteria I live in four potential neighbourhoods of different sizes:

(1) This is defined by the railway line on the other side of my street, the beginning of the allotment area at its top, across the large back gardens area to include the parallel street, with the main road as the link between the two streets. From the point of view of the local authority this is designated along with the allotment area as a 'green corridor'.

(2) This is the same area as (1) plus the side of the main road my street runs off street up the end of a terrace of shops where a new block of flats is being built on a former petrol station.

(3 ) This is the same area as (2) along with the stretch of houses and side streets along the main road on the other side of the railway line up to a T Junction where the routes of four buses converge.

(4) This is the same area as (3) along with the houses and shops that run along the other side of the main road at the end of my street.

Now my personal interaction with these four potential rationally based neighbourhoods varies according to what I do.

Neighbourhood (1) becomes my neighbourhood when there is a joint issue of concern to both streets: like erecting gates at the ends of the alley that runs between the two areas of back gardens, or the threat of unacceptable backlands housing development. I have no interaction with people in that street on other occasions.

Neighbourhood (2) is part of my concept of my neighbourhood because the local Post Office is in the stretch of shops.

Only part of neighbourhood (3) is part of my concept of my neighbourhood because I do not need to go down the side streets, only to walk to and from the junction for the buses, and to use one of the shops.

Neighbourhood (4) is part of my concept of my neighbourhood because of shopping in the local Co-op store in the stretch, and the bus stop opposite the end of my road.
If I walk for five minutes down the side streets on the other side of the main road I do not even reach their ends. The only reason I need to walk down them is to reach the nearest overground railway station which is 10-12 minutes away.

Most of my neighbours are likely to share my concept of neighbourhood. Those that will define theirs as (1) have friends in the parallel street or are involved in the small group that runs the alley gates scheme.

Of course these personal concepts of neighbourhood are no basis on which groups of residents can come together to begin to discuss their concerns about the area in which they live. Therefore they have to think beyond their personal experience. They may however not accept the concepts based on alleged rational objective criteria. Those who have to walk 10-15 minutes to reach their church may regard from where they live to the building as their neighbourhood. There will be people who live on the edge of one neighbourhood who will see theirs as part of the one they live in and part of the neighbouring one. A five minute walk means a smaller or larger area depending on one's size, length of legs, pace, and degree of disablity.

Councillors will interact with their wards as if the whole ward was a neighbourhood, within which there are small neighbourhoods, each with their own characteristics and issues that need to be dealt with at that level, whether it be an estate, an area affected by a planning decision, a crime hot-spot, etc.

If Councillors are to be local 'community' leaders then they need to be open in the dialogue with residents about the differences of opinion about what the neighbourhoods are, and ensure that sufficient time is taken to be able to reach a common agreement. They need to avoid trying to stamp their definition of 'neighbourhood' on residents.

Planning Upwards From the Neighbourhood

All planning should start from the bottom up: what are the problems facing, the needs and aspirations of all the residents in each street and block of flats. The emerging neighbourhood plans should then feed in to create the local area plans, and so up the system into the Local Development Framework. This will involve residents in the inevitable compromises that will need to be agreed where different neighbourhood plans conflict with each other within the local area.

Whether planning is top down or bottom up or a mix of both approaches, it is crystal ball gazing. There are just too many players affecting what happens in the neighbourhoods and the local areas for anyone, especially the planners and Councillors, to know what is going, or what might be being planned.

What Questions Need to Be Asked?

To begin to understand the nature of a neighbourhood a number of questions need to be asked:
What is its socio-economic status, population and its turnover, income, housing tenure, health, employment, deprivation, etc?
What are the public and other services being provided: the range, availability and quality, the degree to which they are addressing poverty and social deprivation?
What is the visual look and feel of the area – day and evening?
Do different groups of residents have different perceptions e.g. children and elderly?
What is the quality of the built and open space environments?
How has the neighbourhood been shaped: inc. its physical development of the neighbourhood; past industries and employment; socio-economic changes; community and voluntary, self-help and collective organisational activity?
Who influences the development of the neighbourhood?
Are some people, organisations and groups more influential than others, and is their effect positive or negative?
What are the strengths and skills in the area?
Is the neighbourhood in decline or is it improving?
Whether in decline or improving who are the winners and losers?
What are the impediments to many residents in engaging?

Who Influences the Development of Neighbourhoods?

This is by no means a comprehensive list but compromises the answers that participants have suggested in the past: estate agents, owner occupiers, tenants, landlords, schools/education services, central government, middle class gentrifiers, poverty, celebrities/ MPs, property developers, local government, Councillors, transport authorities, large scale corporations, employers including public sector, supermarkets, traffic managers, residents including youth, elderly, children, commercial investors, community activists, funding bodies, housing providers, health providers, police, faith groups, businesses/shop owners, voluntary and community groups, social workers, and community workers.

Can The Process Of Neighbourhood Decline Be Understood?

The processes that create decline into deprivation of neighbourhoods and their concentration of socially excluded residents are complex. They include the effect on the individual residents. Often they experience a process of personal impoverishment, a drastic impoverishment of their sense of well-being with adverse effects on physical and mental health. This aspect of the ‘spirituality’ of human beings needs to form part of the analysis of why particular neighbourhoods are deprived, and what may be going on in others to push them into the downward spiral into decay.

The concept of the process of ‘impoverishment’ was missing from the former Labour Government;'s National Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy, but was usefully given its due in a handbook commissioned by the European Commission: ‘Rapid Appraisal Method of Social Exclusion and Poverty (RAMSEP)’ by Emanuel Mastropietro. (CERFE/European Commission 2001).

RAMSEP definition: ‘Social exclusion is the process produced by the accumulative and interaction between each other of various social and environmental risk factors, which tend to push human beings exposed to it and affected by it toward a state of poverty. Social exclusion is therefore a process of impoverishment.’

The Project suggested that :
due to the set of risk factors there is an impoverishment process taking a non-poor individual down into poverty
poverty involves a loss of identity, or a loss of wide-ranging control over the environment
different forms of deprivation produce different ways of reacting to poverty
different reactions to deprivation suggest different areas of poverty, the three main ones being: (a) transitional or intermittent, (b) overall condition of suffering, (c) extreme poverty involving a radical loss of control over one’s existence

The project identified 13 risk factors related to habitat, health, work, intelligence, crime, gender, family, communication, public administration, institutional disorder, social security, social abandonment and consumption. It also suggested that there are three types of poverty:
Intermittent/transitory: borders on non-poverty
Overall poverty: involving serious lack of resources, use of survival strategies, and optimism, weak social ties
Extreme poverty: involves resignation so that there is less control over the environment and evidence loss of identity

It pointed out that individuals react differently to their deprivation. Reactions involve different levels of loss of control of identify, caused by:
intensity of material deprivation – low availability of goods enjoyed and/or basic services benefited from
loss of engagement in informal social networks and with formal social networks
lack of will and capacity to act.

It ‘is often possible to enter a vicious circle of impoverishment due to an illness, due to the lack of professional help, due to unstable housing conditions, due to a high crime rate in the areas, etc’.

It stressed the importance of having information about the process of impoverishment alongside the more traditional statistical analysis through the use of life-histories to illustrate the way the risk factors have affected people, and people’s reactions to their impoverishment. It is building up this kind of understand that enables effective interventions to be developed.

What is Meant by 'Spiritual Capital'?

The language of regeneration, neighbourhood renewal, social cohesion and the Big Society talks about ‘social’, economic’ and ‘environmental’ capital. Yet we know that the fear of crime, the general decay of the state of the local environment, the lack of prospects, can all have adverse effects on individuals’ sense of well-being and mental health. The experience of social exclusion or the onset of sudden crises, whether economic or health, can adversely affect the way people feel. The constant experience of negative material conditions has an adverse effect on the human spirit. We should also be talking about ‘spiritual capital’. This not the same as the religious concept of ‘spirituality’. A non-religious example is the conclusion of longitudinal historical medical research from the United States that the more intellectually stimulated very old people remain, the healthier they remain.

An analysis of the neighbourhood, its history, socio-economic and environmental conditions, of the degree of poverty and social exclusion, of the risk factors that may enlarge poverty and social exclusion, of the services and initiatives available, of the strengths in the community, and the state of ‘spiritual well-being’/’spiritual capital’ are the foundation stones on which meaningful neighbourhood plans can be built.

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