Urban neighbourhood plans: Spring Boroughs

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Neighbourhood Planning is often accused of being too complicated and cumbersome to work in complex urban areas, a stance which is unfair given some of the plans that have come forward such as Heathfield Park, West Hampstead and Balsall Heath. One particular plan that has now been “made” into law is Spring Boroughs.

Spring_boroughsSpring Boroughs is a post war housing estate in Northampton. Originally formed of Victorian terraces for workers from the town’s shoe industry these were systematically cleared to be replaced by high rise flats. Today Spring Boroughs is characterised by housing stock in poor condition (of the 647 council owned properties 455 did not meet the nationally recognised Decent Homes Standard). Homes provide inadequate standards of amenity for local residents with many being overcrowded (utilising living rooms as bedrooms) and lacking outdoor space all of which severely impacted upon quality of life. In terms of demographics, the estate it falls within the top 5% of deprived areas in England, with reference to the Index of Multiple Deprivation. The estate struggles with a variety of issues including income deprivation, poor standards of education, lack of skills and training, crime and unemployment. Many of these issues have been further exacerbated by a lack of community facilities and play space for young people as well the estate’s physical disconnection from the wider town despite its close proximity (pedestrian connections severed by harsh transport routes).

Given the many issues facing the estate and the Council’s plans for regeneration, the 2011 Localism Act provided the perfect opportunity for the residents of Spring Boroughs to have a say in how their estate would develop. This resulted in the establishment of “Spring Borough’s Voice”, the neighbourhood forum for the area, in December 2013. The Forum commenced an engagement exercise across the estate which resulted in the drawing together a vision statement for their neighbourhood plan as well as a series of which can be found at page 20 of the plan here. The plan was split up into four constituent parts; the illustrative masterplan, the area specific policies, the general policies and the projects. The plan was put together in close consultation with the local council who were preparing an Area Action Plan in parallel with the neighbourhood plan. Given how estate renewal has often come into conflict with existing residents elsewhere this approach provided for a very constructive way of working which meant the residents had a real say in what happened whilst the Council retained strategic oversight of the project. The plan was also very focused in terms of the quantum of policies providing detail to the Council’s Area Action Plan. This resulted in five plan wide policies and three area based policies focusing on the key objectives the plan had identified.

Producing a neighbourhood plan within such an urban context has had its fair share of challenges. Spring Borough’s Voice undertook a lot of awareness raising and outreach and worked with Planning Aid England volunteers to effectively articulate the concept of a neighbourhood plan in terms residents across the community could understand. Engagement activities designed to explain the function and purpose of a neighbourhood plan brought different elements of the estate together and even culminated in an estate wide Eid celebration taking place with both Muslim and none Muslim residents demonstrating how the process of plan making can enhance community relations and cohesion. The plan also undertook some innovative approaches to engagement even launching the referendum with a Spring Boroughs rap written by young people form the estate.

Neighbourhood Planning is often criticised as being only for wealthy communities in rural areas but experience shows this is not the case. It can be more complicated to undertake the process in densely populated urban areas due to the varying demographics and complex land use issues but Spring Boroughs demonstrates that it can be done even with the wider challenges of deprivation and low education levels. The estate now has a comprehensive plan for redevelopment, produced by the community and supported at referendum. The plan is focused, was put together in close consultation with planning officers, and delivers much needed development whilst improving the overall standard of living on the estate.

(Image: Northampton Chronicle and Echo)