In 2011 the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat government passed a new law, the Localism Act, which transformed the spatial planning system in England by dismantling many reforms introduced by the previous New Labour government and by creating a new tier of legally binding planning, called Neighbourhood Planning (see Raco et al., 2014: 19). The Localism Act gives the possibility to a group of at least 21 people to form a Neighbourhood Forum (NF) representing a geographically defined area. If recognised by the local council, the NF can prepare a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) which will go through an independent examination and a local referendum. If successful the NP becomes binding and is used to assess planning applications for new developments in the area, in conjunction with the formal local plan (called Local Development Framework). The concept of NF is modelled on the way Parish and Town Councils have worked in rural parts of England. How it will work in complex, highly diverse urban areas is a challenge. In London, the intricate micro-geography of income, class, ethnic and tenure diversity means that the potential mobilisation of a coherent group of active citizens with a sense of place and common purpose for their ‘neighbourhood’ is not a self-evident process. The question of who gets involved in Neighbourhood Planning, where, why and with what agenda is therefore an important one to investigate in relation to the governance of diversity and to the pursuit of social cohesion in a particular area. Two aspects are key: first, whether the composition of NFs represents the socio-demographic diversity of their area and whether their agenda and proposals cater for the interests of a large section of the local population or, on the contrary, of a small segment; second, what position the NFs have with regard to the pressures for socio-demographic change and for new development (e.g. housing) in their area, i.e. a defensive or an open approach to existing and new forms of diversity.
As of March 2014, in London 35 areas had a formally designated NF and 14 more NFs had submitted their applications for designation. In Haringey, there is to date only one approved NF preparing a plan for Highgate, an area of 18,000 people which stretches across two Boroughs. The NF was recognised by Camden and Haringey Councils in December 2012. It is driven by a committee of core members (23 in May 2014) who are co-opted or elected. About half of the founders came from the Highgate Society, a conservation society created four decades ago by middle-class residents to protect the area’s character. The NF cooperates with a number of affiliate organisations (e.g. residents associations, amenity societies, faith groups, community centre and schools). It provides a ‘forum where people from across Highgate and from both Boroughs can come together to discuss issues which affect the area’ and … ‘a democratic way for local residents to put together a Neighbourhood Plan – via the Forum and referendum – for the future development of the area’ (Highgate NF, 2014). The Forum organised various activities to ask local residents about the future of their neighbourhood (e.g. leaflets distributed to all households; Community Planning Workshops). Over 50 people have been working in subject groups to research and write policies for the NP, whose draft version will be published in the autumn of 2014. The plan will be open for consultation and checked by an independent examiner before going to a local referendum. The work of the NF was driven by volunteers’ time, but also received in-kind support from an urban design charity (the Prince’s Foundation) and expert and financial support (a £6800 (€8,500) grant to fund a professional plan writer) from Locality, the government-sponsored body which supports community groups engaging in neighbourhood planning.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
As argued above, from a diversity and social cohesion perspective it is crucial to assess the composition and agenda of the NF and its position vis-à-vis new development and the diversity of population, housing tenure and uses in the area. Highgate is a wealthy area, with less ethnic minority residents and a higher percentage of home owners compared to Tottenham. The Highgate NF is led by residents with a high degree of financial, cultural and social capital, mostly white and middle or upper-middle class professionals – many of them retired home owners who have been active in conservation societies in the area for several decades. There has been suspicion that NFs in wealthy neighbourhoods would be driven by a defensive NIMBY agenda seeking to protect property values and resist new development. In Highgate, however, there is evidence that the draft NP being prepared accommodates the need for new housing (in particular affordable) and community facilities, and pays attention to the needs of low income residents and to the maintenance of socio-economic diversity (e.g. as illustrated by the proposals for Archway Road, the main retail high street). This is explained in part by the relatively progressive attitude/‘social conscience’ of the members of the NF: in the local elections of May 2014, Highgate was the only ward in Haringey where the Liberal-Democrats won a majority, with Labour coming second. The influence of a younger generation of NF members with planning and architectural expertise is also traceable, who pushed for a positive agenda and vision for the area against a perhaps more defensive attitude to new developments which may exist among some older local residents.
Main factors influencing success or failure
It is too early to know whether the plan prepared by the NF will be approved by the independent examiner and by the local referendum. However the work done by the NF has already influenced, for example, some of the planning strategies of Haringey Council with regard to the future development of vacant sites in Highgate. The main factors which seem to have a potentially positive influence on the composition and agenda of the NF, from a diversity point of view, are the progressive political values of many NF members with regard to socio-economic, ethnic and housing diversity; the concentration of relevant skills, know-how and social networks among the NF members; the attempt by the core group of affluent white activists to mobilise residents and community groups from various segments of the population in the drafting and consultation of the NP. The main shortcoming of the Highgate NF (like other NFs across London), to date, is that migrants and BME groups (which make up about 40% of the local population), teenagers and young people, isolated pensioners and social housing tenants are underrepresented. But gender balance is not an issue as many women have driven the NF.
The Highgate case-study confirms, to an extent, what we know from the existing literature on public participation in formal planning processes (in the UK and elsewhere): that engagement with such processes is often driven by an educated white middle-class (Holman and Rydin, 2013). It also shows that the neighbourhood planning process is mobilising a younger generation of socially-conscious activists who are willing to work on positive visions for the future of their neighbourhood which are not just ‘reactive or reactionary but seek to embrace a more inclusive agenda. A major external constraining factor is the limited leeway available for the NP process within the framework of the Localism Act (NP have to abide by the rules set out in the formal local planning documents). There is often little opportunity for conflict to emerge in NPs as they tend to come to consensus perspectives and don’t offer a lot of opportunities for disagreement.
 There is an estimated need for up to 1.25 million more homes to be built in London over the next 25 years. The Localism Act contains incentives to encourage local communities to accept new development (e.g. housing) in their area. Neighbourhood Forums with an approved plan can receive 25% of the Community Infrastructure Levy gained from new development in their area.