Friends of Fishwick and St Matthew’s (FOFS): a case study about dealing with planning and non-planning issues

Background

Industrial_heritage_webFishwick and St Matthew’s, in Inner East Preston, comprises two separate wards and has a population of 12,000 living in 5,000 households. These are mainly terraced homes, built for mill workers, but there are some newer semis from the 1940s-1960s. It’s a tightly packed area with a chronic lack of green space (especially in St Matthew’s); and it’s a deprived area with derelict and empty buildings, reduced employment and a poor environment. There is a high turnover of residential and business occupation. Find out more about Fishwick and St Matthew’s in this video and area profile.

Friends of Fishwick and St Matthew’s (FOFS) grew out of the Council’s Neighbourhood Management Partnership Board, disbanded in 2010. It’s always been led by the residents of the area and while initially a handful of people from the Board kept the group going, over the years it’s grown to around 50 people, all local residents, with around 15 of those being the most active.

Turning the vision and aims into objectives and actions

When the Neighbourhood Management Partnership folded, the residents on the board decided that stopping all involvement would be a loss for the area. They decided to do a neighbourhood plan because they thought it would help them achieve their longstanding, broad vision of making their area a better place to live.

With support from Jennifer Carthy and the community engagement team from Preston City Council, they applied to become a neighbourhood planning Front Runner, and FOFS was designated as a Neighbourhood Forum in November 2012. Neighbourhood planning is just one strand of FOFS’ activity, as the group has been working on a number of local initiatives, such as a community garden and organising trips for local people. However it’s been a big strand – far bigger than they realised at the start.

Callon_Estate_webFOFS’ neighbourhood plan aims to make Inner East Preston a better, safer, cleaner and healthier place for everyone to live and work in, and clearly links with their overall vision. They want there to be vibrant shopping areas, good quality green spaces, employment opportunities and to make sure that Community Assets are not lost to development. The neighbourhood plan’s objectives came out of a very wide consultation exercise, which produced a broad range of feedback, which FOFS had to work through and check back carefully with residents.

Working out which are the planning issues and which aren’t

FOFS organised the results of their consultation into themes. This work was extensive but essential: it’s impossible to make progress unless you can understand the issues you can influence through the neighbourhood plan and those you can’t (for example, what issues needed to be directed to the Police, or to the street cleaning teams, and what issues FOFS could do nothing about). The Localism Act and the government’s planning guidance make it clear that a neighbourhood plan must address the development and use of land.

FOFS found that the list of non-planning issues was five times longer than the planning issues, and it was difficult to turn them into planning issues. The group didn’t want to lose the non-planning issues, so ended up – in their words – “having to do more work!” as the Big Lottery Fund had approached the Council in 2012 about the Big Local Initiative and the Council had nominated Fishwick and St Matthew’s to receive lottery funding. This means that hopefully they will get to spend £1m over ten years on local priorities through the Big Local. So FOFS have been working on their neighbourhood plan and their lottery-funded plan in parallel.

FOFS’ plan sets out policies in chapter 7 and chapter 8 explains the approach taken to the non-planning issues. The evidence base document includes an appendix showing which issues are covered by the neighbourhood plan, and which will be covered by the Big Local Plan.

Understanding the planning system and how a neighbourhood plan fits in

Traditional_red_brick_terraces_webFOFS recognised that they had to work within the planning system. For example, they initially wanted their neighbourhood plan to be written “in our language and on our terms”. But they were advised that it would not be compliant with legislation and would not have the weight they wanted it to have. Planning policies in particular need to be written in language suited to the planning system. They found it useful for this to have the help of Planning Aid England volunteers with local authority experience, as they know their way round the system and can advise, although the group notes that “we’ve learnt more about planning than we ever wanted to!”

While FOFS realised early on that other people can’t do this for you – you have to do it yourselves – they didn’t know where to start and so feel the support they received from the Council, who committed a planning officer to the process, and from Planning Aid England, was essential to success. In fact, without that support the plan would not have happened.

FOFS realise now that whilst neighbourhood planning is a good mechanism for formulating long-term concerns it doesn’t necessarily fix them. But the neighbourhood plan can give active communities greater understanding of how environment, economy and deprivation interact.

Engaging with the community and keeping them up to date

In FOFS’ experience, neighbourhood planning can be a very difficult concept to sell, especially to local residents who have many other daily concerns. So FOFS have spent a lot of time talking and listening to people over the past two years. Some of the ways they’ve done this include:Centenary_Mill_web

  • Getting involved in public meetings
  • Holding meetings for specific sectors of the community (including businesses, women and young people)
  • Delivering leaflets to every house and business in the area
  • Translating documents into minority languages
  • Website, Facebook and Twitter
  • Checking back at all the key stages of the process to make sure they’re on the right lines.

The community engagement team from the Council worked alongside FOFS and did a lot of the coordinating work on their behalf, which was very helpful. Many public information events or consultations were held in the Citizenzone bus (a big vehicle that can be sent in the community), making information more accessible. The team also helped with booking venues and organising drop in sessions at key points in the consultation stage.

FOFS are now thinking about referendum, to take place in February 2015: they originally wanted to have ballot boxes in schools, pubs, churches and mosques – any community venues that might encourage residents to want to participate. They can’t do that, so are wondering about the level of turnout and how people can be encouraged to vote.

Top tips

  • Be very sure that you want to put the work in. Neighbourhood planning is very labour intensive, although FOFS got swept along with it and valued highly the support they had. Make sure you understand what needs to be done and who is going to do it.
  • The two study trips FOFS went on were invaluable, but each area is unique and what works for some doesn’t work for others. You can’t spend too long looking at what other people are up to – at some point you have to do it for yourselves.
  • Keep at it, your skills will develop over time and the process itself inspires creativity and problem solving.
  • Make sure you develop a good relationship with the Council. It’s vital and you will need their support.
  • Get councillors on board: they have good knowledge of the area, the people and the issues.
  • Work out what you need to pay for (e.g. printing, room hire, study visits) and if you can apply for a grant: FOFS feels they couldn’t have done this without the Front Runner grant as they didn’t have any other way of paying for these.
  • If national events such as Planning Camp are too far away, seek out regional events or study visits.
  • And most importantly, make sure you have lots of tea and biscuits for meetings.

Many thanks to Grete Smith, FOFS, and her interviewer PAE volunteer Christine Ellis for their 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.

Photo credits

© All photos are copyright Friends of Fishwick and St Matthew’s (FOFS)