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Whatever happened to ‘The Big Society’? Neighbourhood forums battle on with little government support

Volunteer for the Highgate Nighbourhood Forum, including former chair Maggy Meade-King, go on a walkabout to garner residents' views. Picture: Nigel Sutton Volunteer for the Highgate Nighbourhood Forum, including former chair Maggy Meade-King, go on a walkabout to garner residents' views. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Monday, June 23, 2014
8:30 AM

David Cameron’s “Big Society” dominated headlines in the run-up to the 2010 general election as he pledged to give people the power to shape their own communities. Four years on, the Conservative leader’s flagship policy has seemingly been relegated to the sidelines.

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In Camden, residents have seized upon the opportunity to have their say on the things that matter to them, including traffic, parking and overdevelopment.

Seven neighbourhood forums - approved pressure groups dedicated to producing a neighbourhood plan to shape the future of their communities - were set up under the Localism Act 2011.

But, as yet, none of their plans have won approval, begging the question: is localism working?

Rachel Allison, the newly appointed chair of Highgate Neighbourhood Forum, responds with an emphatic yes.

“It’s actually helped to put Highgate on the map,” the former Lib Dem Haringey councillor said. “People feel they are all getting a say in their community.”

Unlike other forums, Highgate’s group has not won large government grants to appoint consultants to help them write the plan and have had to rely on members’ goodwill and free time to put the document together.

Volunteers have been collaborating on the Highgate Neighbourhood Plan for more than a year and hope to submit it to Haringey and Camden councils next month.

Maggy Meade-King, who stepped down as the forum’s chair last month after three years, agreed with Ms Allison that localism is working in Highgate, but criticised the lack of support from the government.

“I don’t think the government had urban communities in mind at all. It was more about rural communities, so I think they were surprised that all these urban communities wanted a neighbourhood plan,” she said.

“Some forums were able to get £20,000 right at the beginning but we weren’t formed quickly enough to do that because we had the complication of being cross-borough.

‘‘It’s an enormous amount of work. The neighbourhood plan has exhausted a lot of us.”

Despite requiring hours of commitment, forums across the borough have gained hundreds of members eager to have their say on their neighbourhood.

Janine Griffis set up Hampstead’s forum in December last year in response to concerns about basement developments and struggling high streets.

“To give decision-making power to local groups is a very good thing,” said Ms Griffis, also chairman of the Pilgrim’s to Willoughby Residents’ Association. “It should be a powerful tool, but of course you have to conform to existing legislation, but I would agree that we should.”

Ms Meade-King said it is still too early to say whether the process will really put power into the community’s hands.

“There’s only been about 10 neighbourhood plans go through referendum,” she said.

“We don’t really know the relationship between the plan and what the councils can do to make them happen.

“And there’s no doubt developers will challenge this.”

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