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Planners must work to secure trust

12 September 2019 Author: Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny argues it is important for planners to work to secure the public’s trust, but it is wrong to overstate the problem or to view it outside a context of a resourcing crisis and wider lack of trust in institutions.

 Handshake -trust -planning -deal _standard

Why is public support for and participation in planning important?

Land lies at the heart of many of the things which are most important to us, from housing to employment to recreation and food. There are many conflicting potential uses for any piece of land and there will normally be winners and losers in any land use decision. Therefore it is crucial that there is a process for making decisions about land which is widely supported and which enables everyone to participate.

A lack of public faith in planning?

Reporting of a few recent polls and consultations have been interpreted as demonstrating a crisis in public trust of planning.

First, Civic Voice showed that civic societies see planning as dominated by central government and developers at the expense of communities and local government.

In July the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission suggested there is “falling public confidence in the engagement and planning process” and made a number of suggestions for how this could be redressed.

Finally, Grosvenor released ‘Rebuilding Trust’, which included polling purporting to show that “trust in the planning system is almost non-existent”, leading to media headlines including “The British public have lost faith in the planning system”.

Each of the contributions mentioned above make significant and valuable contributions to an important debate. I found the discussion paper from Grosvenor particularly interesting and nuanced, and aside from the headline I found little to disagree with. Many of the solutions it proposed tally with the ones I suggest here.

Overstating the problem

However, it’s neither fair nor helpful to say the public have no trust in planning. The headline findings of the Grosvenor poll conflates attitudes towards large scale development with development more generally and the headline finding presents any score of less than 8/10 as demonstrating a lack of trust.

Another interpretation of the same poll results would be that only 36% of people distrust local councils to make the decisions about large scale development (see below). This does not seem to be a shocking result given that the British Social Attitudes Survey from NatCen tells us that 45% of people are opposed to more homes being built in their area, and between a third and a half of opponents would continue to oppose all new housing development regardless of any mitigation secured by the local authority (more than half in the South of England).

Graphic For Tom Kenney Blog On Building Trust

Overstating lack of faith in local planning authorities is disempowering to those who might want to participate in planning. It also minimises the positive engagement already going on and the hard work planners across the country are doing to secure public trust. And, as RTPI’s Chief Executive wrote earlier this month, it is not the experience of our professional members.

Furthermore it encourages us to look in the wrong direction for solutions – in particular putting the responsibility on planners to do more rather than acknowledging the structural issues they face.

Context – wider lack of trust in institutions and a resourcing crisis

It is also important to frame these results in context. These are not just opinions about trust in planning – rather they reflect a wider crisis of public trust in institutions as well as the public’s acknowledgement that austerity has limited the power of local planning authorities.

The 36% who said they distrust the council to make decisions about large scale development is similar to the 42% who indicated a lack of trust in councils in general in this poll commissioned by the LGA.  Despite this, the same poll found that four times as many people trust their local council as central government to make decisions about how services are delivered provided in their local area.

For many people trust in the council probably has little to do with any opportunities for engagement the authority provides. Recent polling from Hansard found that only 22% of the public are prepared to engage in public consultation and 32% do not want to be involved in any local decision-making.

Of course, we must strive to tackle this sense of disempowerment, and planning could play a role in that. Indeed, Demos recently reported that positive experiences of the planning system and development were a key facilitator to wider trust in local government. But the Grosvenor results should not be interpreted apart from this wider context.

Furthermore, the public’s perception of local planning authorities is clearly linked to a belief that austerity and targets from central government have limited the ability of local planning authorities to control development. This is backed up by another poll from Civic Voice which found that less than 10% of civic societies polled think local planning authorities are sufficiently resourced to deliver statutory services, let alone other ones.

How to improve public trust in planning

The contributions from Grosvenor, Building Better, and Civic Voice include lots of useful suggestions for improving participation and trust. However, many of them require resources from local authorities that challenge their feasibility given budget constraints, or would put additional demands on already stretched income from developer contributions. I think it’s important to also make the case for more structural solutions, for example:

  • A general focus on how to increase trust in institutions. I was shocked to read findings from Hansard, Demos, and the LGA that show a widespread and extreme lack of trust in government (and industry) whilst researching this blog. This problem is bigger than planning and so must the solution be.
  • Strengthening local planning authorities. To deliver for local communities councils need to be able to respond to local need rather than national targets, and require new powers and additional funding.
  • Legislating for greater transparency of decision-making. The RTPI has repeatedly called for greater transparency of land ownership information, viability assessments and other data. The Local Government Ombudsman recently highlighted this as an essential way to maintain trust in planning.
  • Dedicated resourcing for participation. Central government regularly announces new funding pots to incentivise development – why not also make funding available for stimulating community participation? RTPI’s recent report on Resourcing Public Planning called for £12 million a year to fund deliberative community participation processes to inform plan-making.
  • Regional planning structures to deal with large scale development. We know that the majority of people acknowledge the need for new development. But relatively few people want this development to be in their area. Taking these decisions at a less local level can enable fairer and more strategic decisions and save individual local authorities from taking all the blame.

Tom Kenny

Tom Kenny

Policy Officer, RTPI
Tom Kenny leads on housing affordability for the policy and research team at RTPI. You can find him on twitter @tomekenny.