Localism Bill: Citizens doing it for themselves

Across the country, right now, local communities are holding meetings to discuss their reactions to the Localism Bill, to start the process of drawing up Neighbourhood Plans, and to talk about the decisions that could be better taken around the parish pump than in the Town Hall. My advice to Liberal Democrat councillors and activists would be to get working on this as soon as you can, because the spoils- both political and practical- seem destined to go to those who take the initiative first.

This evening, the founding meeting of the London Fields Community Council was called by the local GLA member, who declared: Citizens are doing it for themselves.

There was a great talk from an Urban Planner called Euan Mills, who is working on the Neighbourhood Plan for the Chatsworth Road neighbourhood, a bit further East.

He showed that Neighbourhood Planning can be a positive, proactive role for the local community.

Local campaigners and Focus Teams will know that it’s usually easy to mobilise the community against something; much harder to mobilise them in favour of something. And there did seem to be some strength of feeling in the room that Hackney Council’s borough-wide strategic planning didn’t meet local needs. People seemed particularly aggrieved that London Fields is designated as suitable site for tall buildings in the Hackney plan.

But the new process is positive one: Identifying high-level aspirations for the neighbourhood, and linking each one with the policies or projects needed to fulfil them. Establishing the neighbourhood’s key values, and tailoring the physical environment to suit them.

This is fantastic. I think we’ll get a real clarity of purpose when planning in a much more detailed way for a small neighbourhood– something the borough hasn’t managed to do successfully.

The fly in the ointment still seems to be getting all the right stakeholders a say in that plan.

I worried before the meeting that the urban parish system looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people view their community. I have to say, my worries were not assuaged.

Andrew Boff had prepared a suggested map of the parish boundary. I’ve a few issues with this. For example, Goldsmith’s Row is very obviously part of the community, yet is excluded. It was emphasised that this is just the starting point, but could it ever capture everyone? As I wrote in my last post, an urban community, centered on a specific location, can be geographically dispersed in terms of where people actually live.

There were voices calling for an extremely restricted definition of the neighbourhood. An elderly man representing the London Fields User Group complained about people coming in from as far away as Queensbridge Road, “using our park”, let alone making decisions about it. Queensbridge Road is about 100 yards from the park gate.

This would be the worst result of the atomisation of London: that people like this get more power, and use it to exclude people they don’t consider to belong – that they might try to redefine a park or street of regional importance as a local place for local people. The projects the London Fields User Group are pushing for seem fair enough, but this is the user group that since I’ve lived around here seem to have concentrated on trying to stop outsiders from using the park in the summer (or “hogging the space”, as they put it), stopping barbecues, attempting to get the whole park closed at night, and succeeding at getting a large piece of the park fenced off and tarmacked for football.

On the other hand, the opposite problem could occur- that these parishes are too expansive. The Chatsworth Road Parish Council seemed intent, from the look of their maps, on absorbing part of Lower Clapton Road – which has the potential to be a high street in its own right. Would this expansive districting subordinate the needs of that for the interests of the movers and shakers on Chatsworth Road? As a precept on the council tax can be levied, not to mention potentially very large sums through Community Infrastructure Levy from developers wanting to build in the area, there are financial incentives for expansionistic parishes.

It seems that because this is very much a Big Society citizens’ initiative, it depends on the citizens that get involved and get their territorial claims in first.

This could all get a bit ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill‘…

These issues of balance notwithstanding, it’s still a good policy from the Coalition Government.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

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