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Planning cultures in the South East of England

This research, by Dave Valler, Oxford Brookes University, and Nick Phelps, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, explores the role of past planning decisions and established local 'planning cultures' in shaping present day approaches to planning for growth in three case study areas in the South East region, namely South Hampshire, the Gatwick Diamond and Oxford/Oxfordshire.

The full report and a summary briefing are now available from this research.

The research has been funded by the RTPI South East region.

The research builds on a previous project, funded under the RTPI's Small Impact Research (SPIRe) scheme, which investigated the efficacy of governance arrangements of planning for housing and employment growth in these sub-regions.

The current project sought to extend the earlier analysis by examining some of the historical antecedents to these contemporary planning arrangements, guided by the view that the possibilities for present and future planning are shaped and constrained by past planning decisions and established local planning cultures. The research included a series of focus group meetings interviewing planners working in the public and private sectors in these locations.

Key messages for policy and practice

'Planning cultures' can be understood as how planning practice adapts to the context in which it operates. These contexts are informed by the planning history (or legacy) of areas. These cultures can play a significant role in decision-making but have been largely overlooked, especially at the local level.

Distinct sub-regional or local planning cultures can exist even where there are generally similar region-wide development pressures. This research highlights the different 'ways of seeing things' in each of the case study areas: 

  • In Oxford/Oxfordshire a culture of 'urban political dissonance';
  • In South Hampshire (the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire area), a culture of compliance and collaborative working;
  • In the Gatwick Diamond area, a culture of accepting and managing difference and uncertainty.

These case studies suggest that long-established planning cultures can exert a significant influence on development. At the same time, some of these local approaches represent entirely logical responses to how central government relates to localities.

Even though there has been widespread recognition of economic under-peformance in each of these areas, only rarely have business interests, politicians or planners entertained the likely connection between this performance and some of the political compromises that have characterised planning approaches.

The loss of the former Regional Spatial Strategies and associated plans for sub-regional growth are significant in this respect. A more fragmentary and localised approach may reinforce established local approaches rather than encourage plans of greater scope and ambition.

In these areas, the incremental solutions adopted over the past 50 years may have reached their limits. Breaking out of these legacies may mean appealing to a new sense of the areas people relate to and a much broader constituency.