Leeds: neighbourhood planning in one city

With 35 neighbourhood plans underway, the city of Leeds has seen the biggest community engagement in planning in any city outside London. In a conference organised by Leeds Beckett University in May, the first steps were taken in establishing a network of neighbourhood groups to share experiences and support. The situation in Leeds is unique because it has a range of groups, spanning rural towns and villages and inner city communities, with 22 parish areas and 13 forum areas. This diversity in neighbourhood plan areas, and in levels of affluence or deprivation, is the result of a deliberate strategy by Leeds City Council to promote neighbourhood planning both as democratic engagement in land use decisions, and as a direction of community development. Richard Lewis, the Executive Member for Regeneration, Transport and Planning said: “Neighbourhood planning in Leeds is not just about the leafy villages, it’s for the inner city areas too.” This meant that the Council’s small neighbourhood planning team has been proactive in providing support, but has also prioritised that service to help those groups facing the steepest climb, and many of the inner city forum areas, designated in 2013, are benefiting from the experience of groups at a later stage in the development of their plan.

This proactive engagement has resulted in an up rush of creativity that has justified many of the claims made about the potential of neighbourhood planning. This inventiveness in plan-making was evident in presentations from neighbourhood planning groups at the conference in May. The first neighbourhood plan made in Leeds in March this year, was in Clifford a village of 780 households in the rural north east of the local authority area. Although Leeds as a planning authority submitted its housing site allocations plan for inspection in May, the parish of Clifford has identified additional land for housing as part of an innovative plan to create a new village green. Basing their decision on considerable evidence, they initiated a land swap to create a new village green next to the parish community centre, while providing additional homes on the previous site that was under-used and poorly located. This was an imaginative policy drawing strongly on local knowledge and demonstrated the use of land use planning to strengthen and enhance a sense of place and community identity.

In contrast, the Holbeck neighbourhood plan which is at draft submission stage covers a densely populated community to the south of the city centre, encircled by motorways and railways, with industrial estates next to tightly-packed terraced streets. Holbeck has been the subject of previous regeneration schemes but the neighbourhood plan is strongly led by the local residents’ associations, and the forum has provided the impetus for an impressive voluntary programme of social events and community projects to help rejuvenate the area, and keep residents and local employers closely involved in the plan. A great deal of support was still needed to help the forum engage with planning policy, and Planning Aid England have provided continuous guidance working alongside officers from the council’s neighbourhood planning team. The Holbeck neighbourhood plan is focused on making the area a more attractive and healthier place, and this concern for wellbeing is reflected in policies to improve local green space, conservation, and connectivity, as well as providing more affordable housing, and job opportunities. One of the most creative policies developed by the Holbeck forum is their intention to designate a new public green space in what is currently a road junction that will establish a new attractive entrance to this urban area.

Leeds Beckett University’s Planning School has been closely involved in supporting neighbourhood planning in the city. Its planning students are on placement with the council’s neighbourhood planning team, or working directly with neighbourhood groups and Planning School lecturers provide direct support through Planning Aid England and deliver a programme of workshops dedicated to helping groups share their knowledge and experience. There is a real energy to neighbourhood planning in Leeds that is palpable. Although participants are strongly aware of the limitations and barriers, they see that planning can have significant social benefits and make a huge difference to the quality of their daily life.

Article by Dr Quintin Bradley, Senior Lecturer in Planning and Housing, Leeds Beckett University. Twitter: @QuintinBradley