Australia: UK planners have become a lightning rod for people's sense of frustration

Last Updated: 8 April 2010
Article by Ian Wright

On the 30th of December 2010 the UK Minister for Decentralisation delivered a very interesting speech at a UK Town and Country Planning Association Event, in which the Minister said that planners were a "lightning rod for people's sense of frustration" and spoke of the need to restore respect and pride to town planning. This is a very interesting speech that we have reproduced for your consideration:

I'm pleased to be here today to set out some of the next steps in Government's proposals for putting communities in control of their own destiny through the planning system; and delighted to be able to say more about how the forthcoming Localism Bill will change planning for the better.
But let me start by talking about the wider context. Planning isn't a job - it's a vocation. All of us hope we leave a legacy in our professional life. Planners certainly do leave a legacy. They shape the workplaces where we spend thousands of hours each year; the homes we go home to the evening, and the schools where our children learn. At its best, their work is much more than functional. It inspires and elates.
So my starting point as planning Minister is that planners have an awesomely important job to do. I take very seriously my responsibility of enabling them to do that job to the very highest standards. But I agree with the TCPA that at present the planning system is not doing its job "as well as it should."
The current framework is bureaucratic. Last year, local authorities spent 13 per cent more in real terms on planning than they did five years ago - despite a 32 per cent drop in the number of applications received.
It is too centralised: regional spatial strategies imposed housing targets which made people feel put upon. And it is ineffective. The levels of housebuilding last year were the lowest in peacetime since 1924.
Evidence suggests that commercial development is suffering, and businesses say that the planning system is a barrier to growth. This government has ambitious proposals to make the system fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Above all, we want to change the philosophy behind local planning. We want to move away from a system with significant elements of imposition from above, to one with participation and involvement at its heart - not just warm words, or a commitment in principle, but real opportunities for people to have a say. And away from a system that seeks to resolve the different needs of different groups at a local level by imposing choices from above, towards one which enables a mature debate at local level.
I'm delighted to have the chance to talk about these issues at the TCPA - for two reasons. One, your manifesto recognises in its very first clause the need for a planning system... "based on widespread community engagement." You have been a consistent champion of that principle, and a powerhouse of expertise on how it's done in practice. Two - TCPA's great strength is that it brings together all the different interests in planning - community groups, developers, businesses and more. It represents, at a national scale, the kind of coming together that we want to help happen in local discussions about planning.
The Big Society means putting real power in the hands of local people. It is based on the idea that in very many areas of life people can make the best decisions about what's best for themselves, for their family, for the place where they live. I think that people should be able to make real choices about planning - much as they should be able to make choices in relation to healthcare or education - as a matter of principle.
But evidence also suggests that restoring power to a very local level may have the practical effect of helping people feel positive about development. Imposition alienates. As any parent can tell you, telling someone to do something - even when you're absolutely convinced that it's in their best interests - doesn't always work. IPSOS Mori research from this summer says too many people feel locked out and "done to" by the planning system.
A typical comment from the research said: "I feel powerless - what can we do?" It's simpler to say "no" than to engage with a system that doesn't seem to listen to you. The reaction to the old regional spatial strategies seemed to bear this out. The South West regional strategy alone attracted 35,000 written objections. Conversely, proper discussion with local people encourages a sense of ownership about development. Experience suggests that developers of major projects have a better chance of securing consent if they carry out consultation with local communities before they make a planning application.
And the TCPA's own guide to community planning obligations gives a wealth of evidence about how involvement lets people see the benefits of development, and helps them be prepared to say "yes." Take the story of Ascott-Under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. The local shop closed in 1998. When, in 2002, local people found out about plans to convert a farm, they saw their chance to get a village shop back again. In exchange for the developer gifting a shop to the community, they said they would put up no objection to the developer's plans. They were supportive, because they could see what was in for them. The shop is still going strong.
Or take what's happening with Burgess Hill Town Council in Sussex - who have begun a conversation with local people about the possibility of new housing - making the case that the extra investment that it would make possible could help pay for road improvements, a sports centre, new civic amenities, upgrades to the local station or a new business park. Our proposals are designed to enable this kind of mature debate about local planning everywhere. Because the problem is, although participation has been recognised as an essential element of good planning since the Skeffington Report in 1969, and although there are some examples of developers and planners getting it very right indeed, there are too many instances of participation being an unimaginative add-on to the planning process.
We want to embed participation in the way the system works. Instead of having decision-makers consult local communities, we want to enable local people to make more decisions themselves. We want to hand over power and responsibility so that local communities have real choices, and experience the real consequences of those choices.
The Localism Bill contains several measures to achieve this. The Government has begun consulting on proposals for a new homes bonus. We would match the additional council tax raised over the following six years for new homes and properties brought back into use. It is proposed that there will be an additional amount for affordable homes. I made clear earlier this month that we intend to introduce changes to the community infrastructure levy - making sure that the benefits of growth are felt at a very local level indeed. We plan to require in law that local authorities set aside a meaningful proportion of revenue raised to be spent on infrastructure as neighbourhoods see fit.
And we will introduce neighbourhood planning alongside existing plans - placing an unprecedented level of influence and power at a very local level. The principle is simple. Local people come together and agree, "this is what we want our area to look like. Here is where we want the new homes to go and how we want them designed; here is where we want new shops and offices; here are the green spaces we want to protect."
Where people are most keen to take control and have certainty over development, they will be able to confer full planning permission, so that where the local community is crying out for new homes, developers can get on with building them. In other areas, people will be able to grant outline planning permission - with conditions on, say, the design details. When the neighbourhood plan has been prepared, people will vote on them in a local referendum. With a simple majority, the plan will come into force.
This is a rethinking of how planning operates - creating new pressures and powers that operate from the bottom up, rather than the top down. It offers a scope for self-determination unheard-of until now.
Localism in planning will create the freedom and the incentives for those places that want to grow, to do so, and to reap the benefits. It's a reason to say yes. I look forward to discussing these proposals in more detail with many of you when the Localism Bill is published and begins to make its way through parliament.
Opening up planning will requires non-legislative changes too. I'd be first to argue that planning demands special skills, but I don't think the best way to enable planners to do their job is to set endless prescription and guidance. The current sum of circulars, policy statements and so forth is bigger than the complete Works of Shakespeare, and not nearly as entertaining. Guidance on this scale flirts with the absurd: there's no way a practitioner can keep it all in mind.
Let alone the poor non-expert. This is a harmful side-effect: opacity is a barrier to community involvement. It's time for a radical review to simplify and streamline policy and guidance, to make it easier for community groups to understand and engage with it, and to give proper scope for planners to use their professional discretion. Our proposals imply changes to the role of town planners. In one sense, planners have been the first victims of the flaws of the current planning system.
Often, their job has involved much too much development control - saying yes and no to individual projects on a case by case basis - and too little genuine planning, thinking about the long-term needs of an area, talking to local people, and drawing up positive proposals for the future. Planners have become a lightning rod for people's sense of frustration. Instead of being the agents of imposition, they should have much more scope to help local people articulate their vision for their town or village or neighbourhood.
As Ann Skippers, the RTPI President for 2010, said earlier this year: "We should be proud to say [...] when we are asked, that we are planners. Say it well and say it loudly and say it again if you need to." Neighbourhood planning - which will see planners working with and for the community - should help achieve what Anne and I both want to see - planners being properly valued and respected for what they do.
There are three common arguments made against greater community involvement in planning. The first argument is about willingness. It says, do people really want to get involved in local planning issues? Aren't they busy enough with their jobs and family lives? In fact, people care deeply about the look and feel of the places where they live. Planning can in fact be the gateway that gets people involved in civic life. They might start by signing a petition to protect a local tree - they might end up volunteering on a regular basis, standing as a school governor, or becoming a councillor.
The second argument is about capacity. It says: even if they are interested, have people got the capacity to articulate what they want - and make a meaningful contribution to debate? There are two points to make in response to that. There's an inherent difference in expectations between centralists and localists. Centralists are a glum lot. Their outlook is predicated on the idea that, left to themselves, people can't make decisions in their own best interests. Localists, by contrast, are optimistic about people's good sense, generosity, and ability to make sound decisions. In planning - as in other areas of life - we start from the basis that people are inherently capable.
But planning also of course requires the application of specialist skills. We recognise that in some circumstances people will need some support to make the most of the opportunity to get involved. That's why, if a very local area wants to draw up its neighbourhood plan - we will require the local authority to provide support. We will also fund independent advice, so that local communities and neighbourhood groups who are new to the topic can learn from what has worked well in other areas.
The third argument against local planning is about equality. It says - are you, in effect, empowering those who are already powerful - giving the well-organised an opportunity to channel unwanted development towards the places where the less well-organised live?
There are several points to make in response here. One is that the provision of advice and support should enable those who want to, to draw up their neighbourhood plan, no matter where they live. Another is that there will be some safeguards in the system. Neighbourhood plans will need to be consistent with wider local plans. If the wider areas needs lots of new houses, they neighbourhood plan will not be a means to refuse development altogether. An independent assessment will make sure that neighbourhood and local plans are consistent.
But there's a much bigger point. This concern is based on the assumption that people come to the table thinking "development is bad." In fact, if local people have a chance to voice an opinion, and to see and feel the benefits of development, they have reasons to say "yes."
There is significant change ahead for planning. Taken as a whole, our reforms will help get England out of the housebuilding trough, make businesses see planning as a reason to invest, not a disadvantage, and give planners opportunity and encouragement to do what they do best: to create amazing, inspirational places.
Above all they will give communities a far greater sense of ownership over decisions that make a big difference to their quality of life. They will allow for the exercise of genuine power at a local level; and put the ideals of the Big Society at the very heart of planning. I look forward to working with you all to make sure these reforms deliver the change we all want to see.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Ian Wright
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