The timescale for revision of the joint core strategy runs to late 2012 so the impact of the workshops on shaping policy and practice will only become clear over time. However, the level of understanding of the role of quality of place in discussions about the future was undoubtedly enhanced as a result of the workshops, setting up a good basis for future work.
Partnership working in North Northants
An impressive level of agreement was reached on the continuing need to work together to ensure that housing and employment growth happen in a way that prioritises quality and the distinctive character of settlements and landscape. In spite of a shifting political and economic landscape, the councils remain committed to working together.
Through the process, it was apparent that the joint planning unit plays a crucial role, and should continue to do so in the foreseeable future. It is an excellent resource for four districts and boroughs and the county council, and offers a very efficient way of pooling skills and knowledge for the benefit of all. It is hard to see how anything like the place-shaping workshops could have been planned and achieved without an organisation like NNJPU in place.
Involvement of political leaders
The level of political commitment to planning the future of the area in this way has been particularly important, and will continue to be so. It was helpful to have an individual – Cllr Tebbutt, Chair of the Planning Policy Committee at Kettering Borough Council – to champion the project, given that he was part of both the North Northants joint planning committee and the place-shaping steering group. Other members, including Council Leaders, attended the plenary sessions of workshop 1 and 2. This has added legitimacy to the process and helped maintain it as a priority for each of the local authorities.
It was always a key aim of the project that communities should be more closely involved with the planning process than had previously been the case. Given the nature of the subject-matter – sub-regional planning – this was always going to be challenging.
Towards the beginning of the process, NNJPU launched a community involvement initiative, @yourplace, seeking to go beyond conventional ways of consulting people about planning and to use new media more effectively. As part of this, they produced a film of interviews conducted with young people at places like Adrenalin Alley in Corby. Those interviews were shown at workshop 1 and helped to remind participants that these teenagers were the people who probably stood to gain or lose most from the issues we were covering and the decisions we made.
NNJPU also appointed an artist to record graphically some of the conversations and ideas expressed during the workshop. The drawings produced by Joel Cooper have proved to be very useful in future consultation. NNJPU’s Participation Action Plan sets out to build on this solid foundation and maintain the effort to engage people in planning the future of their places.
For CABE, the project has been invaluable in helping us to generate guidance on large-scale urban design and to test how spatial planning could be made more accessible and relevant. Part of this was about learning how workshop-based models could be used to engage with a wide range of people on issues around place-shaping. But it was also about bringing different kinds of thinking to the process by making use members of the CABE enabling panel. For example, people found the international perspective from Thomas Sevcik both unexpected and revealing.
Broadly, the workshops affirmed the strategic direction previously taken by NNJPU – there was no fundamental questioning of the potential merits of growth and the need to work together to ensure it would offer benefits to all communities. It also developed ideas and priorities around the provision of transport and social infrastructure across boundaries.
There was, however, a renewed emphasis on certain issues. These included a more explicit recognition of the existing qualities of the area – its special mixed urban and rural character – and the need to protect and enhance them. It has led the joint planning unit to pursue a more dedicated programme of work with rural areas. Not only do they have specific social and environmental issues that differ significantly from those faced by the towns, but they also host a range of economic activities and leisure attractions that needed to be given more emphasis in planning. Having place-focused workshop groups on the rural areas as well as the towns has helped their distinct concerns to be given a strong voice in this process.
The workshops were also invaluable in tackling the concept of ‘self-sufficiency’, which appeared in the adopted core strategy. It emerged that this meant different things to different people. Some people understood ‘self-sufficiency’ to mean that individual towns should be left to plan their own futures more independently. Others harked back to discussions about responding to global economic and environmental drivers, seeing it as a concept that was more about wider questions of sustainability, and that a sense of realism was needed in relation to dependence on other settlements.
Discussion helped people to see how ‘self-sufficiency’ was a useful concept and could relate to their own experience. At one level, it described a general desire to take a positive but collective approach to planning for the towns and villages of North Northants. At another, it was about describing ‘sustainability’ in a more meaningful way – a balanced provision of housing and jobs that could, potentially, enable people to live and work within the area and enjoy everything it has to offer.