The environmental planning agenda is shaped by a range of top‐down policies and directives, both nationally and internationally. Simultaneously, several local, often community‐led, initiatives seek to enhance their local environments. This article seeks to understand both synergies and dissonance between top‐down and bottom‐up actions within the environmental conservation and management domain of sustainable development. Four case studies of local voluntary initiatives in Lincolnshire (UK) are used as the basis to examine how the activities and stated goals of the groups align with wider policy goals and engage with formal planning systems. The analysis draws from the neo‐endogenous development theory to offer recommendations about how to recognise and empower local initiatives within a multi‐level governance approach to delivering sustainable development. Conclusions also suggest that the principles of neo‐endogenous development can be applied more widely to capture greater value from community‐led activities.