Oxford Brookes University and VAC have been working together to explore how the neighbourhood planning process in Somers Town is enabling communities and local stakeholders to work together to ensure local planning meets community need in Somers Town.
Dr Sue Brownhill, Reader In Urban Policy and Governance at the School of Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University, talks to VAC about the relationship between VAC and Oxford Brookes and how neighbouhood planning can be used to tackle inequality in the borough.
It enables local groups to come up with land use policies and proposals for their area which will then help determine what happens in that area. What is unique about neighbourhood planning is that previously planning policies were at the level of the Greater London Authority (GLA) or local authority. Now, neighbourhood planning means that you can have a plan that developers have to comply with, which is drawn up by the community for a particular area. It’s got to be in accordance with local plans but what it means is you can get development and things happening in a local area that are much more in tune to that area: that’s the theory. The experience in Somers Town shows that it doesn’t always happen like that because it has to conform with what the council, government, GLA say etc. There are not enough resources available to groups to really get to grips with it and do a plan. But it does present some opportunities.
I know the way in which they have approached the plan in Somers Town – which has been very much about trying to maintain a community that feels under threat at the mercy of development: the stations, city, west end etc. – it shows the possibilities of neighbourhood planning in enabling those discussions to take place and getting communities to put forward their ideas. I know Donna has talked about the way that developers will now come and talk to the Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum and VAC because of the Neighbourhood Plan being there, so if the process means that there are more voices involved then that’s a good thing. Whether or not what happens on the ground will totally reflect that is another issue really.
Q. What is the background of involvement of VAC?
I work at Oxford Brookes University in the Built Environment department and I’ve been doing some research on neighbourhood planning. The Somers Town Neighbourhood Plan (STNP) is a really interesting plan as most of the neighbourhood plans in the country are in rural areas or parishes, in fairly wealthy areas, and so this is very different. I think the STNP has lots of really innovative ideas about what neighbourhood planning can achieve and the priorities for it.
The STNP process featured as a case study in a piece of research that we did, and after that we (VAC and the Somers Town community) did other things together as well. One of the issues around planning has been about trying to secure some of the gains from development and communities being able (or not able) to know what they can ask for in terms of the profits that are going to be made and how much there is in terms of the potential for funding for facilities and any other gains for communities.
On one of the sites earmarked for development in Somers Town, one of our evaluation experts did an exercise that gives the community an idea of what the value of the scheme is, what money there might be up front. We’ve also done a joint seminar as part of another academic theory that’s been happening, hosted by VAC at Coopers Lane Community Centre. This was attended by not just academics but people from around the country who are involved in neighbourhood planning. We went on a walking tour and found out what was going on in Somers Town and then we had some workshops that looked at key issues for Somers Town people to pick the brains of the experts there, or get ideas from their experience. It was a joint learning exercise.
From our point of view it’s been a really good relationship and I think its important because too often there are seen to be barriers between universities, academia and communities, and I think what we’ve done is show that there are no barriers at all and you can work together for mutual benefit. From that point of view it’s been a really interesting experience for us. It’s really good to find groups and organisations that are open to that and don’t have this preconceived idea of academics as stuck in their ivory towers. The knowledge and expertise that we have in universities, it’s important to get that out and share this with others, so that’s why these links into the community are good.
Q. Was that an initial aim of yours on this collaboration?
No. Initially the relationship was established because of looking at the STNP as an example of neighbourhood planning. But from that initial contact we developed this other kind of relationship. VAC has been really proactive about picking the brains of academics from varying institutions on things like housing. For example, we ran workshops on housing and what the context of that was for neighbourhood planning and VAC has been really proactive in accessing this info in a way that will hopefully feed into the neighbourhood planning process in Somers Town.
Q. Do you think the work you have done with VAC has any relevance in tackling inequality in Camden?
Inequalities run across a whole range of issues. In terms of how inequality can be addressed through neighbourhood planning I’m going to give an example of what you might be able to get out of a development as a community.
There are two aspects of tackling inequality there. One is if you can get some of the value out of developer’s profits, some of that should be redistributed to the community. So, any involvement that is going out there and increasing the amount of value that is going back into the community will hopefully help to tackle inequality, for example by provision of housing, training, local labour etc. This is directly tackling those issues of inequality.
Indirectly there is the inequality of knowledge, for example, knowing how the planning system works. One of the whole things behind neighbourhood planning is about trying to engage people with processes they may have been unable to previously engage with. Making use of knowledge and skills already in the community – not just planners who have the funds, or the technical and professional expertise – but people who live in an area have a vast amount of knowledge and skills and ideas about what they want to see happen; so it’s a way of ensuring that they can be involved in these discussions and debates.
Q. How do you think the work going on in Somers Town would be different if VAC wasn’t involved?
I think it would be very different. Donna has made a big difference in particular because she has a really good understanding of the policies and knows a lot of people in the area. There are very few groups doing neighbourhood planning that haven’t got some sort of support. And it’s much better when that is local and home grown than something that is jetted in by a consultant. I think the work would have been a lot slower and more difficult. And I think if you look at what’s going on around the country, if you look at what VAC is doing around neighbourhood planning, it’s actually pretty unique. Most neighbourhood planning groups don’t have an organisation like VAC there to support them. They have to try and either get support from volunteers or funding, small amounts of funding from the government (about £7k) which is when they go and pay a consultant or somebody like that to do a little bit of work for them. But to have that long term consistent support for neighbourhood planning is pretty unique and I think it’s a model really that other places should follow.
Q. Has this work you’ve been doing with VAC had any impact on your own work?
Yes! For our students for one thing. Students always relate to real examples much better than text book. So it’s been really good for the students to find out about real examples of neighbourhood planning going on. A couple of years ago we ran a session for people doing neighbourhood planning’s in Oxfordshire and VAC came along to talk about what was happening in Somers Town and that went down really well – so that sort of sharing of knowledge.
All universities now would also like to promote themselves in terms of what they do with communities and for communities, so we have been doing that for quite a long time, but through that process of working with VAC we were able to share that knowledge from the STNP process with others. For me personally as an academic I’ve always tried to link what I’ve done with community groups so that’s been very important for me. And it keeps us on our toes as well. It’s really good to keep having discussions and debates about what is the best way communities can work with universities so universities aren’t just seen as working with communities as a token gesture or PR exercise. I know the seminar we did in June we had some really interesting discussions and debates and when we were planning it we were looking at how we can make this work for both partners.
Sue Brownill – Reader In Urban Policy and Governance. School of Built Environment. Oxford Brookes University.