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The trouble with targets in planning - and a better way

16 January 2017 Author: Richard Blyth


I heard someone preaching yesterday in church on new year’s resolutions. She said at work (it’s a school) we have new year’s resolutions – but they’re not called resolutions, they’re called targets - S.M.A.R.T. targets. That’s “specific, measurable, ...”

OK you all know the kind of thing. You’ve probably set one or two recently. The thing is the preacher said these SMART targets are no use (bang goes her promotion to management, I’d say). Why? Because whilst pupils set them for themselves they are aren’t really motivated to achieve them.

And it got me thinking (when I am sure I should have been focusing on the sermon) about targets in planning. The whole sector is rife with speculation (I’m sure that’s the correct journo phrase) about what is going to be in the Housing White Paper for England. There has been some increasingly tough talk about getting councils to produce local plans on time and on target (i.e. with increased housing numbers). “Appeals will be allowed all over the place if you don’t shape up.” “No new homes bonus unless you play ball.”

This is all very well, but it is all stick and no carrot. 

I once read a local authority consultation document which effectively said “This is a local plan. We have to do one because otherwise we will lose appeals and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” How much more invigorating if the council said “It is hard to get on the housing ladder; there is a huge waiting list for homes. This is our plan about how we are going to get to work on that problem. You can help.”

How much more interesting to respond to!

But for this to happen there must be real incentives. The RTPI has referred to the need for incentives to make cross-boundary planning really work.

But the same goes for local planning. If a council simply gets more pressures on public services and infrastructure if it grants permission for more homes, you will appreciate that this is going to be like one of those SMART targets in school. It will be grudgingly met – maybe – but it won’t meet with enthusiasm from top to bottom in the organisation.

So what can be done?

Well, we are looking to the Housing White Paper to link local plans to unlocking public and private investment in all necessary forms of infrastructure. This is not just about building high speed rail and new airports: this is about establishing clear and credible links between granting permissions and government budgets.

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

Head of Policy, Practice and Research, RTPI - @RichardBlyth7