In this chapter, we examine a contradiction in contemporary regeneration between a discourse of putting communities in control and creating policy instruments that disempower the poorest. Our focus is the Neighbourhood Plan, introduced as part of the Localism Act 2011, which epitomises this contradiction. The localism agenda apparently offers greater choice to communities, but, in practice, this new approach to the redevelopment of neighbourhoods requires expertise, organisational capacity and finance in a way that favours already well-resourced communities. Thus, the rhetoric of community empowerment within this new policy landscape has done little to overcome the mechanisms by which the middle classes have historically taken disproportionate benefit from public services (Matthews and Hastings, 2013).
MapLocal, the project described here, was an attempt to tip the scales back slightly by providing a tool for communities to begin the process of neighbourhood planning. The tool was limited to tackling the first stage of a plan-making process: gathering community intelligence about issues facing the neighbourhood and making suggestions for change. In doing so, we placed community knowledges at the forefront of a plan-making process, though with the important caveat that such knowledges and aspirations need to be analysed and mediated, both within a community and with expert knowledges from outside. This, arguably, requires a much greater degree of state involvement than is permitted within the current neoliberal discourse that dominates planning policy.
After assessing the potential that MapLocal offers to improve the neighbourhood planning process, we critically assess the issues with devolving decision-making to neighbourhoods. We conclude that neighbourhood planning does offer some real opportunities for developing democratic discourse at the neighbourhood scale. Nonetheless, this potential is unrealised and the policy offers a sop to middle-class NIMBYism while doing little to enable more deprived communities to shape changes and see improvements to the areas in which they live.
The ‘failure’ of community regeneration and the rise of localism
The New Labour period (1997–2010) saw a return to building in city centres at a scale not seen since the post-war reconstruction, characterised by shiny, high-density complexes of well-appointed, if rather small, apartments. Distinct from flagship projects in city cores, however, a plethora of policies were focused on community renewal, attempting to help struggling neighbourhoods via a combination of social, economic and infrastructure investments.