Publication timescales for this article mean that I am writing this in the days between the Budget and the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. Rather than speculate on what we will know by the time you read this, I've chosen to focus on how we are positively getting on with aspects of planning despite the uncertainties that have surrounded us.
In January, the Royal Town Planning Institute ran a successful national training session for Planning Aid volunteers on tools to use when working with neighbourhoods. With these, volunteers can help neighbourhoods consider their aspirations and the issues they face. Critically, the tools help them explore whether a neighbourhood plan is the best way of addressing these and, if so, how ready they are to embark on this process.
I have since worked directly with two of the early government-designated and -supported neighbourhood planning frontrunners. Both these sets of communities understood the key constraining factor: that they had to work with the strategic elements of their local authority's local development framework (LDF) strategy. In this, they could seek to do more or do it differently, but not do less.
They were clearly "fit" for neighbourhood planning, but were confused by the process. They needed guidance on how best to discuss and develop a vision for their area and how to convert this into proposals. These proposals could then be used to gain local support through a referendum and, following adoption as a neighbourhood plan, be delivered to secure the outcomes to which they aspired.
For their plan, one group is now working with confidence towards better ways of meeting an LDF requirement for housing by looking at siting it in the heart rather than on the edge of one village. In another village, it is exploring ways of encouraging a major landowner to release land for development that is not required by the LDF but will potentially make the village more self-sustaining.
For the other plan, the participants are exploring bringing together development pressure and opportunities in a different pattern to meet LDF requirements. They aim to do this by making the centre of one village more sustainable and active, and by uniting a consented peripheral supermarket in a second village with new homes and other facilities, and improving an industrial estate that lies between the planned supermarket and the village centre.
A delightful dimension in this plan is the potential for new market housing on the edge of one village to be linked to the trickier development opportunity in the heart of the other.
The discussions around these plans have thrown up interesting questions around the edge of working with the Localism Act and the new approaches to neighbourhood planning, including: can land be seen as a community asset?; and can a neighbourhood plan offer a basis for encouraging reluctant landowners to release land for development?
The experience has highlighted for me the great potential for neighbourhood planning to empower and excite communities - and to release and exploit the social commitment that prompted most planners to enter the profession.
The great concern is resources. Realising this potential requires the investment of considerable time and expertise - and commitment over relatively extended periods.
The importance of professional resources being available to facilitate and support community endeavour featured strongly in a number of cross-organisational and cross-professional sessions to which I have recently contributed for the RTPI in parallel with this work.
The first was a ResPublica/Royal Institute of British Architects roundtable last month that focused on Designing with Communities. Meanwhile, Design Council CABE was given a lead role, with support from the RTPI and RIBA, in organising a housing design summit trailed in the government's 2011 housing strategy. The partners' first roundtable on arrangements for this also took place last month.
Alongside the positive stories of progress and potential, the RTPI and I will continue to press for professional support. We know the importance of this from past experience and this view is only reinforced by our members' recent engagement with communities on neighbourhood planning.
Colin Haylock is RTPI president for 2012. He runs the consultancy Haylock Planning and Design.