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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Luxton

Planning and Consultation

Charlie Luxton Design has been working with HNCLT in designing the 12 unit Passivhaus Plus housing scheme. In this blog, Charlie discusses the wider aspects of gaining planning permission and how the Hook Norton Community Land Trust (HNCLT) have worked with the local community to overcome many issues that new developments can fall foul of. Charlie takes up the reins.

Over the last 2 years there have been over 7 community engagement and consultation events in Hook Norton which have defined the ambitions and values of the project, initiated by HNCLT and shaped the masterplan and appearance. The result of all this is a project with deep support in the community and huge input from the people who will live in and around the houses.

Too often this kind of engagement, rather than being fundamental, is just virtue signalling with the outcome already defined and local opinion only sort for a cynical ‘box-tick. This approach both ‘games the system’ and alienates the local community.

In general, I am not against gaming systems, they’re there to be gamed as this can drive change and improvement. However, the current asymmetric situation between well-funded developers and promotors against an increasingly resource - starved planning system is leading to bad housing in the wrong places, up and down the country.

Perhaps the greater tragedy is the alienation and disempowerment that this cynical consultation creates in those directly affected by development. If you are asked a question and your answer is not listened to it is perfectly natural to stop talking or start shouting. A fairly typical outcome for cursory consultation efforts.

The results of this breakdown in communication are housing schemes granted in a ‘them vs us’ environment with all available energy expended on a winner takes all decision. If and when development permission is granted, there has usually rarely been a conversation about what the development could be and how it could benefit the local community. The result is often new housing that fails to meet local needs, being foisted on bewildered communities.

We need well designed new houses but perceptions of ‘the wrong houses in the wrong places built against our ‘will’ up and down the land does not help us deliver them.

There are many reasons people don’t want new development near them but I believe fairness, or lack of it, is at the heart of most of them. Humans have evolved to be highly sensitive to mutual benefit and fairness, it is at the core of what defines us. It allowed us to evolve into large groups of fairly small primates that dominated the savanna and now allows us to live in mega cities. I believe we are co-operative and sharing by nature so when a situation is not fair, we really REALLY don’t like it.

There was a time when new housing in a community meant a home for someone you probably knew, built by people you probably knew when more people living nearby improved your chances of thriving. There were mutual benefits all around, this is often no longer the case.

For most, the outcomes of new development are; homes for people you don’t know, built by people who travel large distances that you don’t know, increased traffic and pressure on local services and infrastructure, large profits for developers who have minimal investment in the local economy and one lucky landowner making millions.

If we want better housing that people welcome we need to change this relationship in order to shift both the perception and reality of fairness.

I believe the best way to do this is by starting meaningful conversations with local communities. Ask people affected by a development what they want or need, then listen to them and use the conclusions to help shape the course of a project. I may be an idealist but I’m not alone. All over the world, in many different sectors, inclusive processes lead to better outcomes.

It is easy to write this off as idealism but my experience is that communities quickly grasp the inherent tensions and complexities that shape every development. If they understand the background and facts they make well-judged decisions and can balance the needs of the various parties; developer, council and community.

Our recent work with the HNCLT resulted in decisions that challenge what rural housing looks like;

· Higher density flats instead of detached houses to allow for better space standards and still provide space for shared/community facilities.

· Communal facilities that will enhance social contact.

· Small gardens and balconies to allow for larger high-quality shared gardens and spaces.

· Restricting cars to parking bays to stop the site being dominated by roads and cars.

· Acceptance of minimal parking to allow for a shared electric car pool.

· A procurement method designed to prioritise local employment.

The result is a denser scheme with more units than would normally be recommended for approval if it had not been widely supported by the community. The prospective residents have been involved from initial ideas, where they embraced high sustainability ambitions, right through to the design and costing journey. As always happens when you include the community in the design/specification of their homes, the sustainability standards are higher.

It’s my experience that when community engagement is undertaken meaningfully the wrestle over whether to build or not build can move to discussion about what form of development can best meet the competing needs of all involved, be it financially or emotionally.

As we’ve witnessed with the Community-Led Hook Norton project, there is still enough latitude in the planning system to reward this approach and declarations of climate emergencies by local councils can only help. Therefore, the approach doesn’t have to result in a drop in investment returns and community-led, sustainable schemes can make financial sense.

Over the past few months our ‘winner takes all’ approach to politics has failed us. Similarly, our “winner takes all’ attitude to planning is failing us. It is neither efficient or humane.


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