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How can planning more effectively promote growth?

22 November 2013

Jim Hubbard

Given central and devolved governments’ focus on growth it’s no surprise that every week sees new reports that consider how it can be promoted. This week saw a report from PwC and Demos on 'good growth', and at least two calls for evidence on the subject (one by the RSA as part of the City Growth Commission and another from the RTPI, more on which later). But how are such efforts adding to our understanding of what we need to do to promote growth, and in particular the role that planning plays?

Planners already play a role in bringing different stakeholder groups together in the pursuit of growth, but in some cases this role could be strengthened. Planners are uniquely positioned to create economically successful places where businesses thrive because the community is a place where people are able to happily live, work and play

The PwC and Demos report, ‘Good Growth for Cities’, includes a welcome recognition that growth goes beyond simply measuring Gross Value Added (GVA). The authors have developed an index measuring what people consider most important such as jobs, health, income, skills, transport and infrastructure, and the report makes the case for greater collaboration amongst stakeholders to achieve ‘good growth’, explaining that competition amongst cities for investment and people has become increasingly important.

Planners already play a role in bringing different stakeholder groups together in the pursuit of growth (something that is often neglected in such reports), but in some cases this role could be strengthened. Planners are uniquely positioned to create economically successful places where businesses thrive because the community is a place where people are able to happily live, work and play - and so the link between growth and developing and managing successful places is an important one worthy of further examination.

Interestingly, the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 announced last week poses the challenge of “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?", and the prospectus for the prize states that "The challenge, and opportunity, is to build new cities that are a credit to our age – architecturally inspiring, practical, and desirable, with great infrastructure, good transport systems and beautiful public spaces." This all sounds rather like an important role for planning and further strengthens the sense that more needs to be done to understand how these various factors relate to each other.

Of course, planning is sometimes cited as a barrier to growth - perhaps most vocally by the think tank hosting the Wolfson Prize - but the actual evidence supporting this claim is rather scarce. Planning has sometimes been an easy scapegoat when the economy hasn't been growing as quickly as we might hope, but it’s important that any such claims are properly evidenced. Where planning is having a positive impact on growth it should be identified. Where it is not, we need to determine whether it is responding to other important needs such as social or environmental concerns, or whether the system and/or practice can be improved.

With this in mind, the RTPI has published a 10-week call for evidence for its forthcoming policy paper ‘Strengthening economic benefits of planning’ where we plan to explore how planners promote economic growth and whether more can be done. We are seeking evidence from members and stakeholders throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.

In addition to seeking examples and evidence of where planning has promoted or inhibited growth, we're asking the following questions:

  • Are there ways in which the planning system can better achieve sustainable economic growth?
  • Are there actions that government(s), local authorities and other leaders can take to improve upon the planning system’s ability to promote sustainable economic growth?
  • How can planning authorities be supported to develop more user and business friendly approaches?
  • Does economic growth necessarily lead to environmental and social costs? Is it possible to simultaneously achieve three pillars of sustainability (economic, environmental, social needs) creating win-win-win outcomes?

You can respond to these questions via the RTPI website, so please share your evidence with us no later than 24 January 2014.

In addition, we are commissioning further research that will examine the economic impact of planning by looking at the existing evidence from the UK and internationally. The goal of this research - and more broadly all of our work in this area - is to support and inform a more considered, balanced and evidenced debate on the relationship between planning and economic growth. We might not have £250,000 to spend on these efforts, but we certainly hope to ensure a better, more evidenced understanding of this relationship among policymakers and practitioners (and perhaps even a few think tanks as well).

About Jim Hubbard

Jim Hubbard is Policy and Networks Manager at the RTPI focusing on economic growth and regeneration. His interests include politics, community engagement and how planning can be used to more effectively contribute to sustainable economic growth. Before moving to London to earn an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism from University College London he worked in Washington, DC as a Congressional aide. You can follow Jim on Twitter: @hubrd