Planning policy should help land-based social enterprises deliver value, by protecting communities’ natural assets and facilitating innovative land use.

As the 2006 Barker Review into land use planning made clear, planning policy is in part about enabling land use to fulfill the vision of local government and communities:

planning should also play a central role in delivering the vision that regional and local government has for its area, and it should enable development to fulfil that vision. This also implies that the planning system needs to be accessible to the community….

Since social enterprise is a means of creating social value and empowering communities with popular and political support, it follows that it should be promoted by planning policy. While much of the emphasis is currently on meeting the housing shortage, it is crucial that other forms of land use are not forgotten. Indeed the push for housing development is an opportunity to match up social enterprise land use with other local strategies, to meet the needs of a changing population.

Planning policy should help social enterprises develop sustainable businesses and deliver maximum social value. This means making it easier for land to be used to meet modern demands. Our needs from land increasingly go beyond traditional land management and conservation. A single piece of land can meet a variety of social needs, from education to recreation and more. This will often require planning permission, either for change of use or for putting in the infrastructure needed to sustain new projects. Social enterprises we have spoken to describe the difficulties non-experts experience when negotiating a planning system that was not designed for them.

Planning policy also needs to do more to make sure that community assets are not lost, because the market does not recognise social or natural capital. Just as historic buildings are listed to protect them, land that is valuable to communities needs to be protected from the market. Moreover, any development, including those proposed by social enterprises, can affect the character of the landscape and it is important that planning policy protects existing value as well as promoting new value creation. Planning restrictions can also reduce the cost of land which makes it easier for social enterprises to access it.

The policy situation

Some recent policy developments have been supportive of social enterprise land management, however their effectiveness is still a matter of debate. The 2012 National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) emphasised the need for the planning system to “support local strategies to improve health, social and cultural wellbeing for all, and deliver sufficient community and cultural facilities and services to meet local needs”. It also highlighted the importance of using land in a way that recognises the multiple benefits it can create. The 2012 Localism Act also introduced several policies aimed at increasing communities’ control over the planning process.

  • Neighbourhood Plans are an opportunity for communities to take a joined up approach to development, facilitating community land use alongside other strategies. However in practice they have largely failed to do this for several reasons. First, they have tended to focus on housing at the expense of all other strategies. Second, developing plans requires a significant amount of resources that rule out some community members, and means some forums have been seen as unrepresentative of communities. Third, there has been insufficient support and guidance on how to consider a wide range of land uses, in part exacerbated by resourcing issues in local authorities.
  • Community Right to Build legislation was designed to enable communities to bypass the normal planning process for community led developments. However, due to the requirement for a referendum, the Community Right to Build has generally been seen as more complicated than the normal planning process.
  • Communities can list pieces of land as ‘assets of community value’, which would then restrict the circumstances in which could be sold. However, this has done little in practice as the restrictions are very limited. They can also use the Local Green Space designation to mark particular areas for special protection when they are ‘demonstrably special to the local community’.
  • Developer contributions are designed to make developers pay for the burden they put on local infrastructure. Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levies (CILs) have been used to support community land use. However, one limitation is the need for local authorities to spend this money on maintaining basic infrastructure in a climate of cuts. Another is the position of power held by developers, who have vastly greater resources than both the  local groups and the  local planning authorities with whom they are negotiating contributions.

What more could be done?

Improving the support and guidance available is one option. The Open Spaces Society have already produced guidance on community assets, protecting open spaces, and the local green space designations. The RTPI’s Planning Aid have produced guidance materials on neighbourhood planning, and offer free support to small local organisations that can not afford professional advice. More practical support, like facilitation and expert advice on developing strategies for promoting social enterprise land use, would also help communities and planning authorities to take a more proactive approach to facilitating innovative community land use. Integrating social enterprise land use into overall land strategy would give the added benefit of providing more control over impacts on the character of landscapes.

National planning policy should do more to meet peoples’ needs. We echo Civic Voice’s call for “a more sophisticated range of land use classes”. This would need to give land far more effective protection than current ‘assets of community value’ legislation. Next, increasing the resources available to local planning authorities would put them in a better position both to think about ways of improving land use, and to negotiate with big developers. Finally, we also think it is worth having a conversation about increasing planning authorities’ ability to treat social enterprises differently from profit driven organisations. Since they are dedicated to social and environmental causes, shouldn’t social enterprises and community groups should be helped by the planning process?

Please get in touch with any thoughts on this issue or any of the other areas we are looking at. Next week’s blog will look at securing leases and agreements with landowners.

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