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Political parties need more than a plan – they need planning

05 May 2017 Author: Dr Michael Harris

Daniel Burnham Make No Little Plans…

Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans…”

Politicians often like using the word ‘plan’ – just not so much talking about actual planning. Yet more actual planning might help them to achieve many of the things they promise.

The political parties’ general election manifestos are due to be published shortly. Commentators expect that the manifestos will be rather thin, the result of the surprise election campaign and the lack of time for the parties to develop whole new policy programmes (and of course the overwhelming need to focus on Brexit, which has been described as the single biggest task facing the UK’s civil service since the Second World War).

From a historical perspective however, commentators across the political spectrum have bemoaned the increasing smallness of our politics: the focus on ‘retail policies’ designed to appeal to micro-targeted constituencies, the endless repetition of focus group-tested soundbites, the lack of big promises and big goals – in short, a lack of leadership.

It’s not as if we don’t face major, perhaps unprecedented challenges, from climate change to demographic shifts including an ageing society, the rise of 'lifestyle diseases', and increasing competition in a globalised world. The paradox is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between the bigness of the challenges and the smallness of our politics – perhaps because the size of these problems and their apparent insolubility has been one factor in declining public trust in politicians and institutions, which in turn parties have responded to by narrowing the scope of the promises they make and trying to shore up trust through ill-fated gimmicks such as ‘tax locks’ and even pledge stones.

Some in the planning community talk of a ‘crisis in planning’, but seen from this wider perspective the crisis is in our politics, which planning has inevitably been affected by.

This explains why politicians like to use the word ‘plan’ to suggest that, yes, they have a long-term strategy, that they can solve the problems we face, that they are best placed to provide the leadership we need – but largely fail to harness the potential of planning to deliver on this.

Consider the 2015 election manifestos. In terms of the main UK-wide parties, the Conservatives used the word ‘plan’ in various ways 121 times, the Liberal Democrats 50 times, and Labour 27 times (the party’s manifesto launch slogan was also 'A better plan, a better future'). These usages covered everything from a ‘long-term economic plan’ and public spending, to health, education and pensions.

Some in the planning community talk of a ‘crisis in planning’, but seen from this wider perspective the crisis is in our politics, which planning has inevitably been affected by.

But only in a minority of cases did ‘plan’ meaning actual planning in the sense that we would understand it (whether urban or rural, local or regional/strategic, let alone national). When ‘plan’ did mean planning, this mainly concerned ‘reforming’ or directing local planning via the planning system to produce this or that – more housing especially, better public transport, less pollution, and so on.

Whatever the merits of the parties’ particular proposals, few would claim that they were designed to meet the scale or ambition required by the challenges we face, which is to say that there is a too limited understanding of what planning could achieve and how it could support many other policies and ambitions.

What might contribute to resolving the ‘big challenges/small politics’ paradox and the politics of ever-decreasing circles is then a better recognition of planning among the political class, starting with a better understanding of place and space in decision-making. This wouldn’t resolve the political crisis on its own, but it could help to persuade the public that politicians had genuinely big ambitions and a worked-through understanding of how to achieve them.

So here’s what politicians should say about planning– how we could be planning for a successful future (based on the RTPI’s general election manifesto).

We need to harness the power of planning to create a more prosperous, fairer and more resilient society. In particular, we need strong planning to strengthen local economies, provide more people with jobs and opportunities, and improve our health and wellbeing. Crucially, this needs a much stronger role and powers for local authorities to bring together land for housing and capture more of the benefits from development for their communities. Local authorities also need to be building housing, alongside the private sector and housing associations. This requires that local planning authorities are better funded; they need a sustainable funding solution from central government, and local authority leaders need to recognise the benefits of reinvesting in planning services. We also need to go further and faster with devolution, so that city and county-regions can promote economic growth, affordable housing and infrastructure and so that decisions can be made closer to where people live. We need to know who actually owns our land. And we need to maintain high environmental standards and strong leadership on climate change after we leave the EU

In short, we need to plan bigger and mean it. As Daniel Burnham, the American architect and master planner, famously urged:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realised. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI