One of the key objectives of the Coalition Government which came to power in 2010 was to give local neighbourhoods more power over the decisions that affect them by introducing a new set of statutory neighbourhood plans which (largely rural) parish councils could put in place to support their communities. In urban areas there was no equivalent to parish councils so the government wanted to support the growth of community councils and neighbourhood forums at the same time. In addition, the then Government wanted to give communities some say over how funding to support development is delivered.
A bill was quickly produced and taken through Parliament. Following the passing of the Localism Act in 2011 the Soho Society, which is the registered amenity society for the Soho area, decided in early 2012 that it should apply to Westminster City Council to designate Soho as a neighbourhood area and that it should also apply to set up a forum under its auspices. It did so on 9th May 2012.
Soho Neighbourhood Area
It quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t be a simple and speedy process. During the 6 week statutory consultation period the Crown Estate raised the issue of Soho’s western boundary because they were concerned that if the boundary were along the middle of Regent Street, the Crown Estate’s Regent Street portfolio (which has its own Regent Street Conservation Area) might find itself with two differing neighbourhood plans on either side of the street. The negotiations took a while but it was agreed in time that the Regent Street Conservation Area boundary should be Soho’s boundary, as the architecture of Regent Street fitted better with Mayfair’s aspirations rather than Soho. Eventually on 17th May 2013 the Soho Neighbourhood Area was designated by the council. See the map with the exact boundaries here.
Soho Neighbourhood Forum
Once the Neighbourhood Area had been designated the Soho Society re-submitted its application to set up the Forum, together with a draft constitution, to Westminster on 11th September 2013. This was subject to a 6 week period of public consultation which produced comments from individuals and companies on the wording of the constitution and many meetings were subsequently held to get agreement. Finally Westminster’s Cabinet Member for the Built Environment decided that as the area was not ‘wholly or largely residential in nature’ the Forum would have to be designated as a business neighbourhood forum to ensure local businesses had an equal voice in the process and that designation was eventually made on 25th July 2014. You can read the agreed constitution of the Forum here.
In the autumn of 2014 the first website was produced and a communications plan put together, then in the spring of 2015 planning started towards holding a formal inauguration meeting for the Forum and the election of an initial Forum Steering Group. You can read about the 8th July 2015 inauguration meeting here.
The potential of producing a neighbourhood plan
Soho is hugely diverse and very lively and seen by many as the heart of London, itself a major capital city. Reconciling all the conflicting and competing views may not be easy, especially within a legislative framework that was more clearly designed to empower smaller rural communities than intense and complex areas like Soho.
But, and it is a big but, it is a vital opportunity for all these disparate interests to get together and find solutions to the local issues that keep recurring. Whilst any plan has to be in ‘general conformity’ with national, London and Westminster planning documents, those policies can be changed and tweaked to better suit this community and once approved they will have statutory force.
Of course a Plan for Soho will not solve all problems at a stroke. It is meant to be a land use planning document which will only impact on new development if and when it occurs. But the plan document can contain recommendations to other stakeholders such as Westminster City Council and they will have to take such recommendations seriously.
It will all depend on assembling a sound evidence base for what we want to do and ensuring that our policies and recommendations are practically possible. Also periodically (not more often than every 5 years) the plan can be updated to take account of new circumstances so it will remain relevant to our community.
In addition the Neighbourhood Forum has the right, in agreement with the City Council, to decide how 15% of the funds raised in our area from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) are spent, rising to 25% once a plan is in place.