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Why some people seem to hate planning

11 December 2014

Michael Harris

To many people, the case for planning is common sense. Land is a limited resource. If we use it wisely, it can fulfil multiple social and economic objectives, and help to ensure more ‘socially-productive places’. And we need to use it more wisely than ever, given the kinds of major challenges we face – the challenges we’ve been considering in our Planning Horizons papers this year – such as climate change, an ageing population, the global urban health crisis, and how our towns and cities can identify opportunities for growth in a competitive global economy.

Moreover, the public would seem to agree. Alongside the Horizons papers, we commissioned a public opinion survey, which revealed that the overwhelming majority of people want a greater say in how their communities develop, rather than planning decisions being left more to developers. When asked what they think makes places attractive – the kinds of places that people and businesses want to move to and invest in – the public prioritises local amenities, community safety, green spaces and walkability, all factors that can’t be delivered without good planning.

In short, whatever the inevitable disagreements and frustrations that come with planning systems and individual planning decisions, it seems that most people believe in planning (though they may not always express it this way).

Of course, not everyone agrees, so why do some people seem to hate planning? I’m going to suggest that there are four main reasons, or alternatively that there are four types of critics (‘critics’ used deliberately in the sense that they are relatively small in number but often highly vocal). Two are practical, two are essentially political (which is to say ideological). This distinction matters because it can inform how we respond to such critics, and how we might sometimes be trying to respond in the wrong ways.

1. Planning is slow and bureaucratic

This is the perception that engaging with the planning system is slow, inefficient and bureaucratic. However important, this debate is relatively familiar and I won’t spend too much time on it here. In our Value of Planning research we noted that focusing on ‘planning as regulation’ ignores the much wider dimensions of planning. Even within this narrow focus, many of the studies that critics rely on only seek to measure the ‘costs’ of planning rather than also capturing the benefits. In short, in such cases at best we are only getting half the picture of an already narrow view of what ‘planning’ is.

The main point to make here though is that in many cases, this criticism isn’t about whether we need a planning system but rather whether its operation can be improved – and everything can always be improved.

2. Planning increases costs to society

Some critics, while they would agree that planning can be slow and bureaucratic, also advance a broader economic argument. Often, this is that by ‘restricting’ land for development, planning causes higher house prices and increases costs to businesses, so lowering standards of living and reducing rates of economic growth. These seem like empirical points (although their theoretical foundation can also be highly political, as I’ll discuss further below). This type of criticism also neglects the seemingly subtle but important distinction between planning as a profession and planning policy; some critics appear to accuse planners as having an ethos of restricting land, when this can instead be the result of particular regimes of planning policy within which planners work.

Again, the best response is to suggest that we need to measure much more comprehensively both the economic costs and benefits of planning, and to do so more rigorously and in a much more balanced way – something hasn’t yet been done but which we’re investigating in our value of planning research programme.

As part of this, we also need to continue to argue that the purpose of planning is to help to create future value, for example, by considering the implications of different scenarios of future transport investment and which scenarios might produce the greatest economic, social and environmental benefits. Land, in other words, is not the ‘blank sheet’ that some critics of planning seem to assume it is, and the value produced can be hugely enhanced by more strategic integrated planning (something which, ironically, has been inhibited in part as a result of those who have argued that planning only destroys value rather than creating it).

3. Planning represents an attack on property rights

For the moment, we can note that there seems to be at least as much evidence that points to the considerable economic, social and environment costs that result from a lack of planning (for example, the consequences of sprawl or a lack of sufficient transport infrastructure) as there are individual, narrow studies that focus on the supposed costs and burdens of planning. Given this, why do some critics assert these points as if they are already proven, even incontrovertible? The answer lies in some of these critics’ attachment to neoclassical liberal economic theory as opposed to evidence.

To the most consistent critics of planning (in the UK this includes think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute), planning is an ‘artificial’ legal restriction on land for development, and so a disruption to the ‘natural’ operation of free and open markets. From this perspective, planning undermines property rights which, pace Friedrich Hayek (the Austrian-born economist who among others helped to inspire the ‘neoliberal revolution’), are the inviolable cornerstone of a free society.

This ignores a number of critical points. Firstly, that planning systems by definition serve to protect property rights much more than they inhibit them (unrestricted or even unlawful development being the greatest threat to existing property ownership). Secondly, that ‘the state’ necessarily plays a leading role in social and economic development (most obviously in terms of roads, railways, water and energy infrastructure, and so on). Thirdly, that with regards to planning there is not one monolithic state (as in the neoliberal imagination) but rather a range of public and private actors at various levels that help to shape development, and moreover that in the UK we have community control of land use, which is not the same as ‘state control’. Fourthly, that, as the financial crisis that started in 2007 continues to demonstrate, effective regulation is often critical to stable and sustainable markets, and that the absence of regulation can lead to chaos and huge social and economic costs.

But perhaps the fundamental point to note here is that the criticisms of planning which stem from this position can’t really be countered by evidence, since they aren’t really based on evidence in the first place. As the UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science George Lakoff has argued, political debates are often decided by ‘frames’ – mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality and which can often create what we take to be reality. For some critics of planning, the frame is a simplistic but powerful notion that ‘freedom’ = the removal of ‘state interference’, hence their dreams of a ‘spontaneously planned future’. What planning may often lack then is not just more comprehensive evidence for its value (important though this is), but also a simple alternative frame to communicate why we should believe in it (something I’ll return to in a moment).

4. Planning is elitist

Lastly, to some critics, planning represents a top-down, technocratic paternalism (or worse), wholly out-of-time in an age of widespread distrust of professions and ‘elites’. (One aspect of this, as already noted, is that the ‘costs’ imposed by planning and in particular its impact on house building inhibits younger people being able to buy a house and so undermines social mobility.) This critique of planning doesn’t only come from the neoliberal right. Progressively-minded commentators and even planers have also sometimes called for a much more ‘spontaneous’, community-determined approach to planning.

Certainly, planning needs to engage communities, and to find new and creative ways to achieve this. But there is little logic to the argument that elitism in planning means that we should dispense with planning altogether, which seems akin to suggesting that paternalism and a lack of patient voice in healthcare means we should get rid of the medical profession. Rather, this calls for continuing to develop new forms and styles of planning, working with communities rather than just on their behalf. This has long been a major theme in planning research and practice, and planners have been at the forefront of developing new forms of such community engagement such as Planning for Real and, increasingly, forms of digital participation. (Indeed, it is unlikely that ‘localism’ would be such a prominent theme in policy circles without such demonstrations of community engagement in planning, something for which the advocates of planning have received insufficient credit.)

Without accepting the charge of elitism, we can recognise that there needs to be a sea change in engagement methods, for example that in the context of the current debate about housing this needs to include so-called ‘generation rent’. Further, it is difficult to see how replacing planning with, for example, tradable or auctionable (privatised) development rights (a favourite proposal from some of the most consistently vocal critics of planning) would enhance the collective power of communities to shape their environment, let alone produce more equitable social outcomes. This especially includes those parts of society for whom markets are currently failing to provide. Such proposals as tradable development rights are essentially anti-planning because they are anti-community, and it seems reasonable to assume that this is exactly what is intended, as suspicious as such critics tend to be of anything other than the autonomy of individual private market actors (some of whom are of course much more privileged than others).

There are two main conclusions we can take from this brief (and debatable) survey. Firstly, we need to differentiate between those for whom planning is anathema and always will be, and those for whom we can engage in a more productive discussion about planning and the economic as well as social and environmental benefits it can produce. Secondly, with regards to the latter group, productive discussion might sometimes mean providing more evidence about the benefits of planning, but it might also be achieved by providing an alternative frame for planning. Following Lakoff, this might lie in the notion that planning, whatever its faults, represents a moral cause, something we can be proud of - because in a complex, fast-changing and sometimes threatening world, planning represents our right and opportunity to shape the communities in which we live, together.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.