All eyes might be on Scotland and the independence vote but, with considerably less fanfare, dozens of referendums have taken place in England this year.
Yes/No votes have happened all over the country as part of the coalition government’s localism initiative on neighbourhood plans. Some 29 referendums had taken place in local areas by September 11 2014 covering issues from the asset stripping of local pubs to zero-carbon housing.
Neighbourhood plans allow people to have a say in what kind of developments they would like to see in their area. Instead of waiting for a property developer to come up with (often unwelcome) proposals for their area, communities can position the goalposts themselves. Although the government prefers to put a positive spin on it, as one activist said: “We’re getting our retaliation in first”.
The plans are drawn up as public documents by approved local groups such as parish councils and, once passed at referendum, carry considerable weight as statutory planning documents. If a planning application is made for a new building or to change the way land is used, the neighbourhood plan must be consulted.
Referendums have been held from Exeter St James in the south-west to Upper Eden in Cumbria. Chaddesley Corbett in rural Worcestershire recently voted to pass its plan with a fairly typical 81% in favour. A further 1,000 communities, containing nearly 10% of England’s population are now actively considering drawing up a neighbourhood plan.
If the pace continues, the movement could completely change the way we shape our towns and cities. This local neighbourhood scale is often perceived as the least important level of decision-making but it is at this level that choices are made which affect ordinary people in their everyday lives. Micro-planning can have a significant impact on quality of life, especially for people who don’t have the option of moving away if they don’t agree with changes made to their neighbourhood.
It’s at this ultra-local level that decisions are now being made about the future of unloved housing schemes, supermarkets and protecting green spaces.
NIMBYs no more
The Big Society was, of course, a much derided concept – and these neighbourhood plans have faced their own share of criticism. Tories such as Philip Blond and decentralising Lib Dems saw localism of this kind as an opportunity to give planning back to the people, but others feared professional standards would slip if amateurs had too much control or that unelected parish cliques would force through pet projects. Grand-scale NIMBYism was predicted and fears were voiced that poorer communities would not be able to find volunteers or the resources to produce their own plans.
This is where the referendum idea came in. By allowing communities to vote in or reject the plans, the government brings an element of accountability to the process.
That said, some of the fears about the plans have been realised. The vast majority have been carried out in more affluent villages and market towns rather than in disadvantaged urban areas – Wolverhampton’s Heath Town proving something of an exception.
There is also the question of whether a Yes/No vote is actually appropriate for these plans. Many different issues could be covered in the plan but voters either have to give the green light to them all or none of them. They have to decide if it’s worth voting No to the whole plan when they disagree with just one small element of it.
And voter turnout leaves a lot to be desired. In Tettenhall, for example, the plan was passed with 92% of voters opting for Yes but voter turnout was just 15%, despite what was described as an “exemplary” consultation process. The lack of media coverage proved a real problem in getting the voters to the polling stations.
Most of the referendum results so far have played out in a similar way, with a 100% clean sweep of Yes votes. This is probably a result of a “safety-first” instinct: after all who wants two or three years of painstaking voluntary work to be lost on one doubtful policy?
Despite their problems, local votes of this kind are becoming an important part of planning. And when it comes to legal challenge (the real crunch point) the government has supported the new plans. With thousands such projects in the offing, the referendum rollercoaster may soon come to a street near you.