Balsall Heath: a case study about the process and demands of consultation

Background

park_in_Balsall_HeathBalsall Heath neighbourhood is located about 2km to the south-east of Birmingham city centre, comprising the western half of the Sparkhill Ward in the city. In common with many other inner city areas, the neighbourhood suffers a range of problems from a poor local economy, through weak social infrastructure, to a degraded local environment.

The resident population is approximately 15,000 in around 4900 households. Over half of the population is of South Asian background with most being of Pakistani origin. It is also a young population with 30% under 16 and 45% under 25 years of age. Approximately half the population was in the most deprived 10% of the nation. The unemployment rate for the ward in December 2013 stood at 18.4% compared with a city average of 9.2%. Nearly half the working age population have no qualifications and over 20% have limiting long-term illness.

The initial drive to prepare a neighbourhood plan arose from discussions between the Balsall Heath Forum (BHF) and the City Council in early 2011. It became apparent the BHF was not constituted in such a way as to be a ‘designated body’ and so the Balsall Heath Neighbourhood Planning Forum was formed. The neighbourhood area was formally designated in February 2013.

The area has been the subject of numerous regeneration initiatives over the years and the plan was seen as yet another way of addressing the area’s problems, particularly the pressure on housing and a widespread desire to upgrade the environment. The overall vision is to promote the sustainable development of the neighbourhood, with a particular emphasis on more housing and environmental improvements. Have a look at this video which describes the background to the Plan and its aims. 

Process and demands of consultation

shops__on_Ladypool_RdIn September 2011 the group started to prepare its plan and undertook a series of consultation events. The programme also included evidence-gathering to identify issues, problems and new ideas, with a view to supporting the emerging proposals for development.

A range of partner organisations was identified, alerted to the neighbourhood plan programme and called upon for proposals and supporting evidence. Use was also made of a number of reports and surveys carried out in recent years.

The engagement of statutory consultees (these are organisations such as the local planning authority, the Highways Agency etc), public and semi-public bodies was poor at this stage. There were the twin problems of lack of resources (i.e. time and expertise) from the neighbourhood side and the unwillingness of these bodies to respond effectively to ‘unofficial’ suggestions which did not fit in with their priorities.

It became very clear that most stakeholders only really wanted to engage in a meaningful way as part of the Regulation 14 pre-submission consultation. (This is the stage when neighbourhood forums, or parish/town councils, have to publicise their draft neighbourhood plan for at least six weeks and consult any of the consultation bodies whose interests they think may be affected by the draft plan.) This was very frustrating as there was a desire from the group to engage throughout the plan development process.

This is what the group did: informal, preliminary community consultation started in May 2011 and continued until May 2012, asking the question: what would you like to see included in the Plan? The main focus of consultation was in the period September 2011 – February 2012 and involved groups, individuals and organisations. Activity included:

  • A major consultation event in December 2011, organised by the Prince’s Foundation, and attended by 40 invited participants (for the workshops sessions) and approximately 100 people (at the following public meeting).
  • A further consultation meeting was organised by the St Paul’s Community Trust (a local charity) which was attended by over 100 people.
  • A series of ‘Children’s Workshops’ took place in January 2012 in each of the five local primary schools, with around 30 children participating.

A major neighbourhood-wide consultation on the draft proposals was undertaken in June-July 2012, including an exhibition of draft proposals and asking the question: this is what we are proposing – what do you think? The exhibition was open to groups, individuals and organisations. In the light of this consultation process, the Plan was amended to respond appropriately to the comments put forward, especially those from the city planners.

The final Pre-submission consultation was in September – November 2013, asking the question: we have now revised proposals and written policies – is it now right? This process was open to all, directed to groups, organisations and statutory agencies; further minor amendments were made.

street_in_Balsall_HeathOther, ongoing means of communication included:

  • Active involvement from Business in the Community
  • Links with the BID Partnership and the Police
  • Daily contact the BHF staff have with local people and organisations
  • The local community newspaper (“The Heathan”), delivered to all households and businesses in the area.

The newspaper in particular is a good means of communication with those who are not actively engaged in the plan-preparation process.

Managing the information coming from the consultation process

A Planning Aid England volunteer was involved with the Planning Sub-Group from 2012 onwards as it had become clear to group members that further progress would require professional planning input. The PAE volunteer was able to help ‘translate’ the bright ideas coming from the consultation process into realistic planning policies.

It became apparent that many of these bright ideas were more ‘neighbourhood management’ issues than land-use planning policies. At this stage the help from the city planning department became crucial to the evolution of the plan. There was a regular interaction with the city planners to refine the plan document. The biggest step was the ‘relegation’ of roughly half of the proposals from policies to ‘projects’ (because they were not land use planning policies) – a point initially difficult to explain to community activists. The semi-formal submission of the final draft plan to an NPIERS ‘Health Check’ (a mock NP examination) via PAE proved useful.

Key learning points

baths_library_Balsall_HeathGaining ‘bright ideas’ from the community is a vital, necessary stage, but is only the first step towards a NDP. Early professional planning input will help ensure that plan policies can become effective in managing and promoting land development. This could come from the local planning authority provided they have the time and resources in place; this input can (and has) come from local volunteers (provided such a resource is available). Where none of this support is available then the way forward lies in raising resources to pay for professional help.

The Balsall Heath Forum had unrealistic expectations about the time required to complete a NDP; there are numerous delay factors. For Balsall Heath a significant delay has been the requirement for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to be undertaken because of the cumulative size of the housing proposals.

The opportunity was taken to widen the SEA to include a Sustainability Appraisal which enabled the draft policies within the NDP to be assessed in social, economic and environmental terms. This proved a useful exercise in that it highlighted a contradiction in the proposals, which was subsequently resolved. The process of checking back with infrastructure providers and potential developers also took a long time, reflecting the difficulty of tying down such organisations as city council departments, housing associations, transport operators etc.

Top tips

  • Put the resources in place to pay for professional help in progressing the writing of the plan document
  • Engage early with the local planning department and line up their assistance with plan preparation
  • Try to engage early those likely to be involved in the implementation of proposals, especially public bodies who may see their priorities as lying elsewhere
  • Be realistic about timescales.

Many thanks to Richard Hammersley, PAE Volunteer, for his help with this case study.

These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality.

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