How we did it: Building support for a neighbourhood plan

Innovative engagement tactics proved key to creating a plan for one of Bristol's most diverse areas. John Geoghegan reports.

Engaging team (from left): Community association chair Paul Bradburn; the Neighbourhood Planning Network’s Claire Wilks; Esha architects’ Willie Harbinson; Bristol City Council’s Mike Wilberforce and Sarah O’Driscoll; resident Peter Badger
Engaging team (from left): Community association chair Paul Bradburn; the Neighbourhood Planning Network’s Claire Wilks; Esha architects’ Willie Harbinson; Bristol City Council’s Mike Wilberforce and Sarah O’Driscoll; resident Peter Badger

Project: Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Development Plan

Organisations involved: Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Planning Forum, Bristol City Council, The Prince’s Foundation, Locality, the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Planning Aid, the Neighbourhood Planning Network, Destination Bristol

The Old Market Quarter is a diverse area of inner-city Bristol that has suffered from post-industrial decline and post-war planning mistakes. Busy roads have left parts of it isolated and the growth of nearby shopping centres have hit its commercial offer hard. It is the kind of urban, non-parished area in which the government is keen to see more neighbourhood plans in place, according to recent comments by planning minister Gavin Barwell. Indeed the minister has visited the Old Market Quarter to find out more about how the community put its neighbourhood plan in place.

Production of the plan involved a long process, with some formidable challenges along the way, says local businessman Paul Bradburn, chair of the Old Market Community Association, a residents and traders body that provided the backbone of the Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Forum. Bradburn says that the inspiration to create a plan came from a workshop held in 2011 by built environment charity The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, which looked at ways to enhance the area.

The plan itself sets no housing or employment targets, but outlines five key aims. These include improving mobility around the neighbourhood, particularly for pedestrians, making it more attractive and encouraging more employment and better shops and housing. It also aims to protect open spaces and improve the population’s health and wellbeing. To this end, the plan promotes the development of 32 sites and includes detailed design guidance.

Bradburn, who is a designer, says: "It’s a part of Bristol that was ignored for a very long time and had an undeserved poor reputation. But the area seems to have taken off in the past two years, and now it’s one of the places to be in Bristol. With a fast-growing population and increasing developer interest, Bradburn says that the community group wanted to be able to "steer the change coming to the area" in a positive way.

Bradburn says that, alongside The Prince’s Foundation, Bristol City Council offered key support: "Its strategic planning team tried to do as much as it could on limited resources," he says.

Mike Wilberforce, senior planning policy officer in the strategic city planning team, adds: "We worked closely with the neighbourhood forum from an early stage, providing guidance on how to write a planning policy document and detailed feedback on the draft emerging policies. But the vision was all theirs."

According to Wilberforce, the extent of community engagement was "one of the strongest aspects of the Old Market Neighbourhood Plan". Old Market has no clear "self-contained boundary", he says, and "enormous" ethnic and cultural diversity. The area encompasses old industrial areas and a commercial area and contains a lot of social housing. It is home to a large Somali community, and to the city’s long-standing gay village. "Old Market really did go that extra mile to try and engage with as many parts of the community as possible," says Wilberforce.

Bradburn feels that community engagement was one of the toughest challenges that the forum faced. The lack of response was, at times, "quite demoralising" he says. "It’s almost impossible to try to explain to people what a neighbourhood plan is in ten seconds," he adds. But Bradburn’s design skills proved crucial to boosting the engagement effort. He came up with the innovative idea for a "wish cart", a wheeled cart that was taken out onto the streets, into schools and used in consultation events. Members of the public were asked what they wanted to change in the area and given the opportunity to write their ideas onto a "wish card" that was then pinned to the cart. Bradburn says the cart, which he built himself, helped to capture hundreds of ideas from residents of all ages and backgrounds.

During the plan’s examination, the examiner recommended separating the plan’s aspirational projects, which could not be delivered through the neighbourhood plan, from the planning policies. Bradburn says that compromising on some objectives was an important lesson for the forum.

The Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Plan was adopted by Bristol City Council in March, having been approved by 90 per cent of local residents in a referendum in February.

In addition to Barwell’s visit, the plan has been widely recognised. In July it received a high commendation in the Planning Awards’ neighbourhood planning category. Judges praised it for "successfully tackling serious environmental and economic improvement, with significant social impacts, in a diverse inner city area".

"When the plan was made by the council following a unanimous vote in favour, we got a standing ovation," says Bradburn. "That was a really good feeling. It reassured us that our time hadn’t been wasted."

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