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Why measuring planning outcomes is vital

By Iain MacPherson, associate director of Kevin Murray Associates

Following the appointment of Kevin Murray Associates to lead a large RTPI research project into measuring planning outcomes, associate director of the firm, Iain MacPherson, sets out why this is such a key piece of research for planners and planning.

We’re delighted to have been commissioned to carry out this research on behalf of the RTPI and the project partners in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

We are a team consisting of practitioners and academics, all with a focus on using good research to enhance practice in delivering quality places and ultimately better lives for people.

Led by Kevin Murray Associates, with yellowbook, McCabe Durney Barnes, University of Dundee and the University of Cardiff, we have experience of working throughout the UK and Ireland, and indeed beyond. Our hope is that this team can bring a diversity of experience and perspectives to this research project and help create a rich set of practical toolkit outputs.

Measuring Planning Outcomes is not necessarily new territory. Indeed our team has a wealth of previous research in this area from which to draw. So why is this such a key piece of work for planners and planning at this time?

Planning has undergone considerable change over the last decade or so. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis has left a long-lasting legacy on communities and their place. Austerity policy has also had a particular influence, both across the board, but also accentuated in key localities. These forces have created social and political impacts on society and on place. For instance, a worsening ‘Housing Crisis’ has seen homelessness grow and good quality housing become unaffordable for many in my generation.

In addition there are other pressures from reduced capital investment in communities and constrained local service delivery. While these may not all be strictly planning issues they are factors connected to place quality and liveability.

The effect of these pressures in planning has been a system, according to a recent RTPI and Newcastle University study, the ‘Austerity Planner’, has been “relegated it to a largely reactive, regulatory function in many local authorities, creating a ‘box-ticking’ culture that has closed off the space many planners traditionally used for reflection, professional discretion and proactive planning.’” The report goes on to argue that the result of this retreat has been that ultimately it has become a barrier to delivering in the public interest, a core tenet underlying modern planning.

In practical terms this means a system that is focussed primarily on delivering a service to immediate plan-users, seeking out efficiencies and generating revenue. With this dislocation between development management and plan-making has come a drive to measure performance: in consents given, and units delivered. If you are what you measure, this risks a system in which success is viewed narrowly through the prism of process and performance, and does not necessarily deliver on quality of life and physical place. At a time when we need planning to respond to economic and societal pressures, planning needs to demonstrate that it delivers the public interest and longer-term environmental outcomes.

So what does this research and our approach seek to do about all of this?

First, we want to find the common ground and guiding principles across Ireland and the constituent planning jurisdictions of the UK. How do we measure performance now?  If we are seeking better place outcomes, what should we be measuring?

Second, we want to consider what data sets have become available, what digital solutions there are in place to help unlock measuring outcomes? We hope to develop something that is useful, practical and is not a large additional burden to any authority or other user, otherwise it will not be used.

Third, we will be developing and trialling a toolkit for measuring planning outcomes. We  have early ideas and suggestions from performance management and sustainability research, and welcome suggestions from others. As we want to avoid creating something that becomes either onerous or box-ticking bureaucracy, the emphasis will be on practicality and utility.

And we are going to contextualise this toolkit for the respective planning jurisdictions, with pilots also due to run in Ireland and Scotland. This will help test the usability of the tool, exposing where it may be impractical and enabling changes to be made to fit needs.

There is a lot of complexity to unravel. If it were really so simple planners would probably already be doing it. To help us unravel this complexity we need your help. We need a body of people to help complete surveys, outline outcome measures, and participate in discussions and pilots.

We are already learning about some innovative and aspirational approaches to outcome measurement, and we want to learn from these exemplars and consider how they can be applied in different circumstances at different scales.

We have discovered there is a groundswell of enthusiasm within planning for this outcome-focused performance.  It touches at the very heart of why so many of us have entered the profession in the first place. We want to have a meaningful impact on place and its communities; if we are what we measure, we want to know what that impact is.

We hope planners across the public, private and community sectors will contribute their ideas and experience. Keep an eye on the project page for further updates or email [email protected]

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