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Why planning is about doing more than one thing at once

17 March 2017 Author: Richard Blyth


It seems like policy wonks have been busier than ever in the month of March and we’re only just over half way through it!

So far among others we’ve seen the publication of Shelter’s New Civic Housebuilding report on 2nd March, the pamphlet  from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) on why we need a strategic approach to land on 5th March, and last but definitely not least the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Inclusive Growth Commission’s final report on 7th March.

These are all helpful and prominent contributions in the planner’s universe that have received good media coverage. Shelter’s report, which I was pleased to contribute to, calls for a third way beyond simply “deregulating” planning (the preference of the free marketeers) and “build loads of council houses” (the left-wing alternative). The CPRE has put together essays from key people such as Lord Deben, Secretary of State for the Environment under John Major, and Corinne Swain OBE (vice-chair of RTPI’s English Policy Panel, and an RTPI and Arup Fellow) on the need to look afresh at how England’s land resources are managed, or arguably not managed (the RTPI’s chief executive Trudi Elliott was also interviewed by the authors). And the RSA’s Commission, to which we gave evidence, calls for place-based industrial strategies, new social contracts between Whitehall and town halls, and new ways of assessing public investment and economic success.

But from the planner’s point of view the difficulty with these approaches, media-friendly as they may be, is the focus on single issues. These reports seek to address the problems with silo thinking, but two of them actually fall short of this objective.

For example, in the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, housing as both a cause and consequence of non-“inclusion” gets no reference, and no proposals are put forward regarding how solving housing problems would actually address many other questions the Commission is interested in (to be fair to the RSA, more recently it also published a short report on the role of housing associations, but nevertheless the housing issue goes beyond one provider type).

[T]he problem that planning becomes a “political football” whose main purpose appears merely to centre on “dividing the spoils” or mitigating between different interests.

The CPRE’s pamphlet talks a lot about land as a resource, but not very much about land as a positive resource for housing people.

Meanwhile, Shelter’s report does make connections with land as a cause of housing shortages (due it being acquired from owners at too high a price to permit sustainable development to occur) and the local economy (as homes that are well built by a range of builders can provide local jobs).

Planning as a profession and activity is continually approached by “special interests”. A typical request takes one of two forms:

a) To place “requirements” on development in order to meet wider purposes, for example environmental protection or enhancement;

b) To ask for burdens to be removed from development in order to support particular kinds of developers, be they small builders or the private rented sector.

There is even a third kind of request, a modification of (a) in which requirements on development are proposed in order to encourage neighbours to agree to development being permitted.

Understandable though this is, the problem with this is that planning becomes a “political football” whose main purpose appears merely to centre on “dividing the spoils” or mitigating between different interests. If we inadvertently limit planning’s purpose in society to these kinds of activity, as opposed to recognising the creative, positive and proactive role of planning, the result will be that we will not make much progress in dealing with the issues of local economic productivity, housing affordability and resource management that the three reports out this month seek to resolve.

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

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