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Should we put a number on planning?

08 February 2016 Author: Dr Michael Harris

Last month Newcastle University School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape organised a workshop on Working together for better planning, which considered how researchers and practitioners could work together to fight for better planning.

Clearly, the pressures being experienced by many planners at the moment – from resourcing issues to what seems like almost constant reform – made the event very timely. But running through the discussions was a debate about the wisdom of adopting what some participants called ‘Treasury thinking’: whether planners and academics should speak more in the language of microeconomics and the potential dangers of doing so.

[Would quantitative] evidence play into a narrow type of economic thinking that is unable to recognise the social and ethical values that led to the development of professional planning in the first place?

In part, this debate was sparked by a roundtable that the RTPI organised in association with our academic journal Planning Theory and Practice at last year’s AESOP research conference on whether planning research is serving the needs of practitioners (you can find a short write-up of the roundtable here). The question we raised at the AESOP event was whether there are under-researched issues, more evidence for which might help us to defend and promote planning. In the AESOP discussion we used the economic value of planning as an example of a relatively neglected issue, one for which more work is needed, including more numbers.

However, would such evidence play into a narrow type of economic thinking that is unable to recognise (and indeed might be implicitly inhospitable to) the social and ethical values – the commitment to building a better society for all – that led to the development of professional planning in the first place?

We talked about this dilemma at the recent Newcastle event. Some economic thinking can undoubtedly reduce complex social phenomena to numbers (or equations) in ways that are unhelpful or just plain wrong. For example, does the supposed ‘cost of planning’ – a dated number still regularly cited by UK Government – really reflect the value of, let alone justify continual upheaval in, the planning system? It’s also true that numbers alone can’t capture the physical and natural environment, let alone human wellbeing and community, in all of their totality or complexity.

Then again, numbers do have an undeniable currency in policy- and decision-making, and indeed in the media. What we really need are better numbers.

In our own work, we’ve called for a much broader account of the value of planning, drawing on a more diverse range of economic thinking. For example, at the end of last year we published research from Liverpool University which used behavioural economics to understand how proactive planning can produce better built environments.

We continue to set out possible approaches to quantifying the value of planning. This week we’ve published a working paper that tests the potential of econometric analysis to capture the economic benefits of place-enhancing interventions – in this case, improvements to parkland in Dagenham, East London.

We don’t claim it’s in any way definitive; instead the idea is to point to the kind of work that could be done at a larger scale as an alternative to the narrow accounting of planning’s supposed costs. This follows an earlier working paper that indicated how good planning can lead to quantifiably better economic outcomes, focusing on the RTPI-award winning Gorbals regeneration in Glasgow.

All of this work also suggests that ‘numbers’ (and indeed economics) aren’t inherently antithetical to social or environmental concerns. We can value green space for its intrinsic qualities or how it makes us feel, while at the same time capturing (part of) its value through economic methods. Similarly, as in the Gorbals case study, we can measure how good planning can support increased opportunity and social mobility, which are both economic and social concerns.

Different audiences will need and respond to different types of argument. For those audiences that require numbers, we need both more and more rigorous quantitative investigations into the value of planning, which is not the same thing at all as reducing it to a ‘price’.

But for others, we can assert, as we did in our Planning Horizons series of papers during the Institute’s centenary year, that the social and environmental challenges we face mean that planning needs to return to its historic broader mission to create healthier, safer, stronger communities for all – that planning is a force for good.

Both numbers and values are critical then in the fight for better planning.

Our thanks to David Webb at Newcastle University for organising the workshop.

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI