Communications professionals will know that ‘radical’ isn’t a word that often chimes with the person on the Clapham Omnibus. So it’s interesting to hear it being used by the Prime Minister in the context of one of the most challenging elements of government policy: planning.
Anyone involved in the planning process as a resident, developer, campaign group or promoter knows it’s the area of policy in which the famous phrase “all politics is local” has the most resonance. Can this radical change to the planning system bring together the many and varied interest groups taking part in the process? Might it even help engage more people in the process?
In Planning for the Future, the government says it is looking to enable development to come forward faster and better – with a particular emphasis on addressing the housing crisis – and correctly points to a number of failures in the current system. The process for adopting local plans can be long and drawn out, bringing with it a travelling circus of meetings and hearings over several years of which Kafka would be proud.
Housing need assessments are indeed complex and the formulae used have given baffling projections in some areas. Affordable housing quotas are often reduced as a result of a trade-off between affordable homes, the need to pay for local infrastructure and for developers to see a return on their investment. Developments are often criticised for not being attractive enough and the environment can be seen as something to maintain rather than enhance. Perhaps most importantly, the government raises the issue of trust, with the public mistrusting developers, councils or both to get it right for their area. Without a rebuilding of trust, planning will continue to be characterised by bureaucracy, challenge, conflict and anger.
But are the solutions suggested going to bring about the outcomes desired by all sides? Giving a site allocated for growth in a local plan automatic outline planning permission sounds quicker, but that just shifts the conflict to a different stage. What happens when the detailed planning application comes forward and local residents have their say? The green belt will remain ‘protected’, but we all know that boundaries are negotiable when local plans are drawn up in growing areas. The consultation calls for ‘clear rules’, except those rules will need to be set – presumably in the local plan, where the debate over specific policy will become more fevered.
National guidance looking at beautiful design sounds good, except we all know that it is a matter of opinion and local taste. On the environment, there are positive noises about sustainably connected communities and carbon neutral houses by 2050. Environmental campaigners will rightly point out that the original target for carbon neutral homes was 2016, before it was scrapped. To create properly connected communities, money will need to come from somewhere, as will space.
Of course, the solution to many of these issues may well come in the form of the government taking a more muscular approach with planning authorities and developers. But will this top down approach be popular?
One positive note seems to be a shift towards digital engagement – something agencies like Camargue have invested in significantly during the lockdown. If the planning system is ever going to be a success, it will need to be judged a success by members of the public. And they will only be able to do that if they’re able to feel engaged with it. The government, planning authorities and promoters will all need to embrace digital engagement if they wish to access a wider range of people than the usual respondents to consultations. If they do that, they might even find pockets of support for schemes traditionally badged ‘controversial’ or ‘unpopular’.
If that can be achieved, we might find that Planning for the Future is easier than we thought. However, the fundamental challenges in the planning system posed by democracy, accountability, the environmental imperative and the market will remain. A new policy cannot delete human nature.
Max Wilkinson is a senior account manager at Camargue