Is Neighbourhood Planning likely to increase community participation?

For the past six months, I have been carrying out research on Neighbourhood Planning as part of a Master’s degree in public policy at University College London.

Since I was already involved with the Highgate Neighbourhood Forum (HNF), I decided on a qualitative case study approach with HNF and another London Forum. I was interested in the idea of whether Neighbourhood Planning would increase community participation, and in particular whether it would do so more effectively in areas of higher socio-economic status (SES). Therefore, since Highgate is generally a high SES area, I selected a Forum in a lower SES area for my second case. West Ealing is also a more diverse area than Highgate, which provided an additional variable to investigate.

I conducted interviews with volunteers from both Forums, and with the local authority planning officers assigned to support them. Many of my findings were quite surprising and contrary to what I had expected.

The higher SES area had no particular advantage for many participation indicators, and for one higher SES was identified as a particular disincentive to participation because of the intimidation factor created by having highly educated and articulate people already involved in the Forum. This suggested that, although in some ways Neighbourhood Planning may be more effective at increasing participation in higher SES areas, the additional people drawn in are likely to be of the same type as those already involved.

The homogeneity variable had an effect, with the West Ealing Centre Neighbourhood Forum (WECNF) reporting difficulty engaging the diverse communities in the area; but in both cases the concept of identity, crucial to participation, was discussed in much wider terms than mere demographics. Identification with a place is connected to the purpose that people use it for, whether that be for business or leisure pursuits. Therefore, neighbourhood forums need strong identities which reflect the priorities of people in their areas.

Community consultation is a crucial aspect of the Neighbourhood Planning process. However, there were several reports of people either not identifying with formal consultation processes, or on the contrary identifying too much and monopolising public meetings! Strategies to militate against this were discussed, such as splitting up large meetings into working groups with competent chairpersons to ensure that everyone has a chance to have their say.

Finally, the study revealed a delicate balance between the Neighbourhood Forum and existing voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations in an area. There was evidence of Forums needing to win the support of the VCS in order to achieve representation, and of VCS organisations in an area competing with a new neighbourhood forum for legitimacy. It was also suggested that people sometimes relied too much on the VCS to do things for them. The implication was that, if neighbourhood forums failed to forge their own distinct identities and encourage active participation in their work, they risked becoming simply another facet of the VCS to which people could outsource responsibility for their areas.

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