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Are national and local politicians talking the same language when it comes to planning?

19 November 2013

Roger Gambba-Jones

For as long as I’ve been a councillor involved in planning, I’ve made a point of attending the annual Politicians in Planning Association (PIPA) conference whenever I could. As well as being free and therefore outstanding value, more importantly its content is always relevant, often thought provoking and always delivered by those with an in-depth knowledge and experience of the planning system.

...planning is, in my opinion, the most important role of any council. Done well, planning will benefit their communities for generations to come; done badly, it has the potential to blight those communities for decades.

Given all these positives, I remain surprised that more of my fellow councillors don’t attend these events. This may be a reflection of the relatively low membership of PIPA, which is a surprise itself, as every local authority has some form of planning responsibility and planning is, in my opinion, the most important role of any council. Done well, planning will benefit their communities for generations to come; done badly, it has the potential to blight those communities for decades.

This year’s conference was even more appealing, with the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, headlining. The minister gave a self-assured and confident speech, followed by an equally confident and, at times, robust response to a range of questions from the floor. The nature of these questions, in comparison to the content of the Nick Boles’ speech, brought to mind the phrase coined by the legendary American politician Tip O'Neill, "All politics is local", or to be more accurate in this case, “All planning is local”.

On the platform, like a general addressing troops, stood the minister defending the Government’s reforms to the English planning system, motivated by a severe housing shortage and the need for economic growth (neither of which are in dispute). Meanwhile, down in the trenches sat the grass roots politicians of all political persuasions, seeking answers, help and understanding on how to ensure the success of the reforms that the Government has introduced. At times, the gap between the two seemed very wide.  

During his speech, Nick Boles referred to the need for all councils to have a Local Plan and even called for all communities to produce their own plans, thereby giving them control of where development took place. But this was as local as the message really got, with the remainder of his message being about how planning needs to change and how it ‘all needs to be done very differently’ – and the minister’s tone was one of urgency. 

Clearly, there is a philosophical divide here, with ministers including Nick Boles asking some quite fundamental questions of the planning system – what it is for, what it produces, whether it is better than ‘chaos’, and so on. Such questions, however uncomfortable, could also provide the planning community (including local councillors) with the opportunity to respond in defence of planning – explaining what planning has historically delivered, and what it could deliver in the future (perhaps given the right policy framework and support).

But having delivered his perspective on planning – that Local Plans, underpinned by neighbourhood plans, would lead to a new era of locally-driven planning, Nick Boles strode out through the somewhat shell-shocked ranks. I reflected however that the missed opportunity here was perhaps not the fault of the minister, but rather ours. I’m not seeking to criticise those councillors who asked their rather parochial questions, but instead point out, that by making their questions so location-specific, they had neglected the chance to expose the bigger issues that many of us will continue to wrestle with. 

For example, personally I would have asked the minister about where do those families accommodated in a converted office block, possibly in the middle of a large commercial development , take their children to play, walk the dog, buy a newspaper, or shop for a pint of milk? Another question might have been, has the Government over-emphasised (or allowed the impression to develop) that localism is about the public being empowered to change planning decisions, rather than (as is more the reality) being more able to influence positively the production of Local Plans?

Somewhat frustratingly, many of my fellow councillors used such question times to make (longish)speeches. Not only does this reduce the number of people who get the opportunity to ask a question, it can also allow the more fundamental philosophical differences apparent between speaker and audience to go virtually unexplored.

The remainder of the conference was no less interesting and arguably more useful, as it covered a wide range of issues, delivered in smaller, more intimate groups, going some way to bridging the gap identified earlier. This gave those attending the opportunity to ask questions about how they might apply the speaker’s insights to their own circumstances.

As in previous years, the Planning Advisory Service had done PIPA members proud. (I would however make a small plea to consider going back to a weekend event, as I’m sure the Friday date excluded some of the younger councillors in fulltime employment; I also think the traffic that meant it took me over an hour to get through Peterborough would be much reduced). That said, I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

About Roger Gambba-Jones

Roger Gambba-Jones is a Councillor and Planning Committee Member for South Holland District Council. He is the Portfolio Holder for Waste Management, Green Spaces and Operational Planning for the Council, where he has been a Councillor since 1999. He also represents South Holland on various outside bodies such as the South East Lincolnshire Joint Strategic Planning Committee and the Spalding Town Forum. He has his own on-line blog: Roger's rants and sometimes something useful! and you can follow him on twitter: @Gambba_Jones. Roger retired from technical authoring in 2011, and is now fully committed to his role as a District Councillor, “with a passion for all things planning related”.