Neighbourhood Referendum: The most important local elections you’ll vote in

Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Plan: nothing to do with Liveable Streets and everything to do with giving local people a say in planning decisions for the first time in history.

Some of our readers who live in Bow have asked to know more about polling cards delivered through their letterboxes last week asking people to vote in the Roman Road Bow Referendum on Thursday 13 October. Here’s why you shouldn’t ignore that ballot paper.

In simple terms, the referendum will ask residents if they support the Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Plan, a legal document that, for the first time in history, gives local people a say in the planning and development decisions that impact their neighbourhood.

Where has the Plan come from?

The Plan has been nearly seven years in the making. The process was started back in 2016 when the Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Forum was first formed by a group of local people who had heard of the Localism Act passed in 2011.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced new powers for people to make neighbourhood plans, with reduced interference from central government and the local authority. It is an important and powerful tool that gives communities statutory powers to shape how their communities develop.

‘Local planning needs local knowledge and no one knows the local area better than the people who live in it. We wanted to make sure the local community gets the right type of development  in the right place,’ says Forum chair Alex Holmes: ‘This could be anything from community-owned affordable housing on disused land to lighting a dangerous underpass or reopening a gate in a park.’

Over the years many local residents, businesses and community groups have been involved in the various stages of developing the Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Plan. Key phases included having the Forum approved by the Council, designating the boundary, consulting the community and finally developing a set of planning policies. 

This growing group of volunteers worked with local residents, businesses and many community groups, meeting regularly over the past six and a half years. They have listened to how people in Bow want to see land developed and used for the benefit of the community, and turned these ideas into practical planning policies with the help of a consultant and support from the Council’s plan making team.

​​The Council carried out its own consultation on the plan which ended in February 2022, and the plan was then subject to independent scrutiny by an external examiner to ensure it met all the legal requirements. At the end of May the independent examiner recommended that the Plan, subject to minor modifications, should proceed to referendum. The Plan has been updated accordingly and it is this final version that you will be voting on.

‘The process has been long, often bureaucratic and had to contend with the restrictions of the pandemic, and there have been some voices of dissent’ says Forum member Mike Mitchell.‘ The referendum will be the ultimate test of whether the Plan reflects the views of local residents.’

The Plan’s principle purpose is to guide development within the Neighbourhood Planning Area (NPA), allowing local people to have their own planning policies that reflect their priorities. It will have weight in deciding whether to approve planning applications, rather than this being decided solely by the Local Planning Authority. 

Crucially the local Council would now have a legal duty to refer to the Neighbourhood Plan before making decisions on planning and development in the Bow area. Also, once the Plan is adopted, the local community has a right to a share of levies paid to the Council by property developers to use on improving the infrastructure in their local area.

There are now several hundred Neighbourhood Plans in England who have taken advantage of the Localism Act 2011. Pioneers that we are in the East End, three of these are in the borough of Tower Hamlets: Spitalfields, Isle of Dogs and Roman Road Bow.

The NPA consists of all of Bow West and Bow East except for Victoria Park and the parts of Bow that are included in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park planning area.

Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Planning Area map

What does the Plan say?

All 49 pages of the final Plan are available to read on Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Plan’s website. You can also see hard copies at  the Town Hall, Mulberry Place E14 2BG and at Bow Idea Store, Gladstone Place E3 5ES. But if you don’t quite have the time for that, here are the main points you need to know. 

The plan looks at six themes of Bow’s physical environment: the local economy; connectivity; open space; heritage; housing; and, community infrastructure.  

Top line policies include actions to support local businesses to maintain a thriving high street and local economy, and prioritising the development of high-quality affordable housing and community infrastructure from sports facilities to health and social care centres.

Other objectives include breathing new life into Bow’s local heritage sites including Bow Wharf and Bow heritage trail, protecting and  improving green spaces and making roads and paths better for walking and cycling. These, however, are not to be confused with the Council’s separate Liveable Streets schemes.  

The plan would seek to create ‘beautiful public areas’ including improving public areas on housing estates and the designation of eight local green spaces to protect them against development. These are: the space at the bottom of Brodick House,  Daling Way, Holy Trinity Churchyard in Morgan Street, Locton Green, Roman Road Adventure Playground, Trellis Square and Wennington Green.

Evidence produced over the years has been summarised in a series of reports on the Forum’s website. The reports offer extensive insights into what local people have said they most want to protect – from community pubs, children’s playgrounds and heritage sites – to what they most want to develop, from affordable housing to wider pavements for walking and outdoor dining.

Members of Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Forum are volunteers and have included a retired church administrator, a local printer, housing consultants and architects living in the local area, members from local resident associations including Clarion, and local businesses including G Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop. 

The Forum employed independent planning consultant Chris Bowden from Navigus Planning to translate local requests into planning policies. This was facilitated through small annual grants from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The Forum is still looking for new Members to help with the next stage of the Plan. After it is adopted, the Forum’s role will be to ensure the Plan is applied as intended and to consult the community on how funds should be used to improve the local area. 

Our coverage of the Plan

Follow our timeline tracing the long road that led us to the referendum: 

About voting

If you live in the neighbourhood planning area shown in red on the map and are registered to vote in local elections, you can vote in the local referendum on 13th October.

The question on the ballot paper will be: Do you want the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to use the neighbourhood plan for the Roman Road Bow Neighbourhood Planning Area to help it decide planning applications in the neighbourhood area?

If a majority answer ‘yes’ to this question the plan will be adopted and will guide the Council over the coming years in how land in the plan area should be used and developed. The plan will carry full weight in relevant planning applications. 

If a majority vote ‘no’ the plan will be withdrawn and have no further weight in planning applications, and the local community will lose this opportunity to shape the future of Bow.

If you’ve misplaced your polling card, do not fear, the card itself is not required at the polling station. Simply give your name and address and this will be looked up by the officers present. No ID is needed. Polling stations can be found in the following locations: 

Polling stations

  • Old Ford Methodist Church, 522 Old Ford Road, E3 2LY
  • Eastside Youth Centre, 6 Parnell Road, E3 2RB
  • Tredegar Centre, 333 Morville Street, E3 2DZ
  • Bromley Public Hall, Bow Road, E3 3AA
  • Chisenhale Primary School, Chisenhale Road, E3 5QY
  • Olga Primary School, Lanfranc Road, E3 5DN
  • Epainos Ministries (New Testament Church of God), Lichfield Road, E3 5AT
  • Malmesbury Primary School, Coborn Street, E3 2AB

Planning issues can feel remote from our daily lives, but the Neighbourhood Plan provides an opportunity for Bow residents to make their voices heard. Neighbourhood plans are limited in what they can address, but the decision about whether or not the Plan is considered in the Council’s planning decisions over the remainder of the decade rests with your vote on Thursday 13th October.

If you are not already on the electoral register, you must register to vote by 27 September. Details of how to do so can be found on the Tower Hamlets website.

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