Weeknotes 9

w/e 03/07/2020
TL/DR
Raining. Thinking. Being proud of the team. 

What are you thinking about?
I am thinking about what we learned over the course of last year, and what might be just around the corner in this one: 

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Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
This week was the big set-piece review of 2019-20 in front of our sponsors. Inevitably it felt slightly overtaken by events, but it is one of those rare opportunities to speak truth to power. We were offered (and took) a couple of moments to tell them how we might change things to make the planning system slightly fairer and less friction-y. 

I also spoke to a couple of punters about what they need from us (calmness and structured approaches mainly). 

Lastly I spoke to a group of our suppliers about how we might package and define the work we want to procure over the next chunk of the PAS programme. I’m not sure I know all the answer yet but I think I feel less worried and more confident that this disruption represents an opportunity to be more creative and free. I’m almost looking forward to procurement – and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. 

What did you learn / read this week?
I had the pleasure of dipping my toes into neighbourhood CIL this week. It’s amazing how something that should be fairly obvious can become byzantine and faintly dodgy with the application of forms, process and ill-judged paternalism. 

What did you make / achieve?
With the help of my lovely team we made a slightly dry round-up of the year and a more zingy presentation of 2019-20. I also made my first two baby steps helping advise people with their s106 / CIL work. 

Oh yes, and I completed couch to 5k. I now need to work out whether I enjoy running enough to continue. 

What are you looking forward to next week?
Next week is a short week, as I am shipping the eldest back to university and taking some time out to think through a family investment. 

However I am looking forward to the first meeting (for me) of the POS CIL network, seeing the second cohort of our suppliers and taking to a district council about how we might do some peer work virtually. I am also seeing a slightly different bit of government to see if we can knit together a new alphabet soup of SA and EIA alongside BNG and some new ones I can’t remember in a big environmental package. 

Climate Change Lincoln

I have found it increasingly hard to remember the world in general prior to Covid 19, let alone the planning world and the latest issues and priorities of the day. But as I sit here at home typing away, I am determined to ensure that plan making can not only do its bit to ensure we get back on the road to recovery, but also we can get back to ensure planning is as at the forefront of tackling the most important issues of the day before the world had even heard of Coronavirus.  

Climate Change being the most important issue of our time.  Without wishing to sound too evangelical, we planners have a moral duty of care to our future generations to make sure that our plans take a comprehensive and rounded approach to addressing Climate Change that will make a real difference and not just tick the so called ‘green box’.  Here in the historic city of Lincoln and in Central Lincolnshire where we have joint Local Plan with our neighbours in North Kesteven, West Lindsey and Lincolnshire CC, as officers we have been tasked by our Members with exactly that – what can we do that will make a real difference to addressing Climate Change and is it realistic (possible even), to deliver a Carbon Neutral Local Plan?

Challenge to the Council – planning’s window of opportunity

Following our respective authorities declaring either Climate Change emergencies in 2019 or ambitious carbon target reductions, the review of the Central Lincolnshire Local Plan provided an opportune time to set planning at the heart of how our organisations can deliver on our lofty Climate Change ambitions. 

In our current adopted plan, to be frank we play relative lip service to the green agenda.  It was written at a time when we were effectively hamstrung by national policy in terms of the real teeth we could give to our policies on climate change, low carbon and renewable energy.  Thankfully, it appears we have more power to our respective elbows and through the re-emergence of Climate Change as a world-wide priority, in no small part due to people power (thanks Greta amongst many others) and science (thanks IPCC) now is the time to act decisively and without fear.

Of course we have huge challenges to face. In an area like Central Lincolnshire where land values are low and viability is tight compared to many other parts of the country, delivering a usable Local Plan which makes a significant contribution to mitigating climate change is going to be tall order.  We don’t know many, if any of the answers at this stage about how we are going to do it, but at least we are giving it a go and fair play to our members for asking us officers to try.

Who else is involved?

Lincoln has established a Climate Commission (one of 10 nationally see https://www.lincolnclimate.org.uk/ ) which was originally made up of organisations such as the City of Lincoln Council, Siemens, Transition Lincoln and the University of Lincoln and since then has expanded to include a range of businesses and organisations who want to work collaboratively on climate change. We’re fortunate in having people on the commission who have experience, knowledge and most importantly a real desire to make a meaningful contribution towards tackling Climate Change. 

How far can the plan go?

Earlier in the year when life seemed a lot more straightforward, as officers we were tasked by our members to scope out what role the Local Plan could play in helping address climate change.  We consulted members setting out the policy and legislative context and a range of potential plan options. We are currently in the process of commissioning evidence which explores the climate change related areas of work in detail that could be applied in the new Local Plan and have set out a number of key tasks to explore.  

This includes establishing a position statement to set out the role the Local Plan could play in delivering climate change objectives; identifying what the Plan can and cannot influence in respect of carbon reductions and defining what net zero carbon means for the Plan and what needs to be done to achieve it. 

We also want to undertake an assessment, using reasonable assumptions, of potential carbon implications of options for the spatial strategy for development in Central Lincolnshire e.g. urban, edge of main settlements, villages, new settlements.

Others areas we want to investigate include:

  • Considering whether some types/scales of development could deliver net zero carbon ahead of the 2050 national deadline
  • Considering whether different carbon reduction targets are needed for major/ minor residential development
  • Considering whether an incremental percentage reduction in carbon is needed over the plan period
  • Identifying what net zero will mean for the Local Plan and the options for how the Local Plan might achieve it (including, for example, the role of commercial-scale renewables, such as wind and solar, to balance out the inevitable carbon implications of new development; and the ability of the planning system to facilitate such balancing).

Ambition/realism

Of course we need to realistic about what we can achieve so we will be exploring the cost implications of carbon related policy requirements including upfront costs for the developer and potential costs savings for future residents, building occupiers and operators.

Ultimately we want to know how high we can push the ‘climate change bar’ in the review of our Local Plan.  It’s exciting but also quite nerve-wracking at the same time as we have been looking around to learn from what others have done in their plans but as yet there doesn’t seem to be much around.

I think it will come down to a certain degree of a ‘leap of faith’ or maybe more accurately a ‘jump into the unknown’ as to how successful we are.

Wish us luck!

Weeknotes 8

w/e 26/06/2020
TL/DR
Hot. Typing. Applying styles to things. 

What are you thinking about?
I don’t want to sound like a stuck record, but I’m still thinking about the infrastructure funding statement. This is OK because it is my job to think about it.

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
A quiet week. I spoke to some peer friends about various bits & bobs, and had a couple of low-key updates with my sponsors and policy peeps at MHCLG. 

I don’t want to add any weight to the idea that PAS sits somehow outside the LGA, but I also spoke to some of my LGA colleagues this week for the first time since lockdown. Everyone moans about their employer, but I have to say the SLT at the LGA have been great throughout the pandemic. At our webinar earlier in the week we were asked a question about how we saw the future. It’s early days but it seems to me:

  • the office as a place to work every day is finished
  • in the short term there is lots of talk about choice and personal circumstance which is lovely and fluffy.
  • our open place office is poorly laid out for what we need it to do, which is to host whole teams turning up specifically to be with each other to talk / collaborate / feel connected
  • more / bigger meeting rooms for more lumpy and random attendance. This is going to be hard to predict & provide. I predict a riot rota.

What did you learn / read this week?
I have almost finished my GDS content design training. It is great – I recommend it. In week 3 they introduce Hemingway as a way of grading your content for readability. It is brutal:

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I also was one of 120-odd people in the launch of the centre for cities “cure the housing crisis by zoning planning” report. Oh to be so certain. 

My database exploration hasn’t moved. I’m waiting for there to be a Venn diagram of feeling cleverer than usual and a clear couple of days in the diary.

What did you make / achieve?
I have finished my bit of the website, which is nice. I also commissioned some design work for our post-decision surveys – it is getting close!

I have also agreed the structure for our IFS materials, as well as beginning the first draft. Hemingway doesn’t like it.

I have also persuaded moodle to live on our little scratchy server we use for messing about. We are trying out a little MVP on councillor training to see how it works. 

What are you looking forward to next week?
Next week we have a review of 2019-20 in front of our key audience, so I will have my sleeves rolled up  for that. I’m thinking if it goes well we should find a place to publish it more broadly. 

I’m also picking the brains of our supplier network to hear from them what virtual and online working means for the way we should package and buy the support we put in place for councils. I’m expecting to hear that the status quo should prevail…

Weeknotes 7

w/e 19/06/2020
TL/DR
Not waiting for the ducks to be lined up just right. 

What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking about how I might need to organise support for the Infrastructure Funding Statement. 

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
It was a full week. I spoke to my lovely client about what is going on (and not going on) in the world of IFS. We’ve sort of been waiting for something to happen, but time is running out so I think I’m just going to start and see what happens. 

I also held a virtual meeting of the Combined Authorities – we’ve not met since November when the world was a very different place. One of my colleagues was a spectator and unprompted marvelled at how “zingy” they are as a group. My theory is that they are zingy compared to almost any bunch of standard planners – but not because the CAs and regional planning are inherently better but because they have more agency. They are able to do more because they have money and the ability to act – they don’t write policies to be enabled by others. 

I was also fortunate to spend time with a few recent customers talking about their experience of the resource review. Lots to think about. 

What did you learn / read this week?
I read a new summary of zoning by one of our newest friends #planorak. If zoning is an allocation on steroids then all it does is change where in the development pipeline the work gets done (and who pays). Oh well. 

I spectated a Pecha Kucha on the power of Norwood High Street. It’s on my doorstep, and I love a Pecha Kucha. It’s always interesting to see how other professions approach things – and architects really like visual things. The best bit for me is to catch up with the neighbourhood plan – I’ve resisted it for about a decade but I may see if I can help in some  small way. 

My database exploration hasn’t moved. I’m waiting for there to be a Venn diagram of feeling cleverer than usual and a clear couple of days in the diary.

What did you make / achieve?
I made me a new structure for the website, or at least my part of it. I also cued up a couple of small bits of business and agreed the next steps for our MVP on councillor training. 

What are you looking forward to next week?
It’s a quiet week, so probably setting some time aside for web work and – if the brain allows – some time with a database of sites. 

Weeknotes 5

w/e 12/06/2020
TL/DR
Starting to understand the consequences of working differently.

What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking about how we procure and deliver work. In the olden days, if we’re honest, for all the talk of procuring outcomes what we actually did was buy days of time. The unit of measure of stuff was “a day” and we’ve been doing this job long enough that we knew what a good day looked like, what it was worth and what it could achieve by way of impact. This is no longer true. 

This is a big issue for us, and for the network of mostly SME suppliers we use. Thinking isn’t going to fix this – I need to check in with them. We need something fair and pronto. 

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
I spoke to a group of new customers I have tried to label the EPB. I have no idea whether it will stick. It’s a bit early to say too much – but I was struck again how lucky we are to be allowed to be genuine and real and to do work that is (mostly) about making the world a better place. 

I also spoke to one of our bestest peers about infrastructure and prioritisation. My goodness it is powerful to be straightforward and clear on the basics. This is doubly true when the basics are about what it is we are trying to achieve – and not the procedures and processes that we think might get us there. I was very graciously and politely put in my place and I’m the better for it. 

What did you learn / read this week?
I read an oldish summary of zoning by the ever-excellent Lichfields. I think you can probably guess why. 

I also caught up with the LBWF project to count houses [short answer = use draft UPRNs upstream, but no one has fixed the approved inspector problem]. I’m doing something very similar (a bit similar?) with my work on housing land supply. On the whole “show & tell” thing – it’s been interesting (to me at least) how I have definitely taken some “digital” models of working into what I do, but only after I’ve been doing “improvement” of various sorts for the last 20 years. I may return to this thought in the future. 

My GDS training on content design -continues (I’m slightly behind). My reading hasn’t moved. I was struck, the other morning, that I have been gifted an opportunity to up my game by having a quiet space and some time but I’m not taking it. I think it is a confidence thing. Next week, if the sun shines, I’m going to take my “lean enterprise” book outside and a notepad.  

My database exploration hasn’t moved. I’m waiting for there to be a Venn diagram of feeling cleverer than usual and a clear couple of days in the diary. 

What did you make / achieve?
I made a one pager for a new project. I loves me a new project – so much potential, so little paperwork. I have even learned to appreciate the notion of a “deliverable”. 

Otherwise it is a big pile of work in progress, including some new things that smell suspiciously like yet more Programme Management things. 

What are you looking forward to next week?
Next week I am really looking forward to our housing & planning friends in the Combined Authority network. They won’t mind me saying (and they won’t know I’m saying it) that they collectively lift my spirits and make me believe in planning again. So much brainpower, so much interesting work. I expect to learn lots. 

We are also going to kick the tyres of our resource review work with some recent customers. I think we have become so paranoid of acting like Proper Consultants who offer councils cost savings [that conveniently pay for their expertise] that we have hidden our light under a bushel. Some brilliant work is trying to escape if we can only understand our customers a bit better. 

Climate Emergency – Opportunity from Risk

I’m trying to put together a package of support to meet a growing demand from Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) for help in understanding ‘what good likes like’ when it comes to local plans and climate change. I’ve discussed this with planners, climate change and sustainability experts, local politicians and lawyers – all with a view to understanding how PAS might help.

I have found it both fascinating and difficult in equal measure; fascinating as there’s no end to the scope of this agenda, and difficult for similar reasons – where do you focus, and how do you create an effective local plan response that is more than a set of ‘green-washed’ policies? Or risks failing the tests of soundness at an examination?

I thought I’d set out what I’ve learned, what is driving this increased demand for support, the potential solutions and why now is a good time for PAS to do something.  

Nothing’s new but everything’s changing…
The current conversations about a ‘green recovery’ are an obvious hook for any piece about climate change, but my starting point is before we’d even heard of Covid-19. Let’s go back to May 2019.

2019 was a watershed year for climate change – following many towns and cities across the UK, Parliament declared a climate emergency (the first national legislative body to do so) and set an enhanced national target of achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Over a third of councils have now declared their own emergency and many have set themselves even more ambitious timetables.

Many councils are still working out the detail of what their climate emergency declaration actually means (here’s an idea), but bold statements/promises have been made and invariably it is the local plan and planning teams that councils are looking to for the ‘response’. Last September, sensing some lethargy, the climate lawyers ClientEarth wrote to senior local councillors reminding them of the Local Plan’s legal obligations in supporting the delivery of the National climate change policy and targets.

Not another ‘one silo train’
None of this is new. Planners understand how to write local plans for sustainable development – it’s implicit in the plan-making process and discipline that the plan will consider, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

What has changed, and needs a response, is the environment that planners find themselves working in – this agenda has significantly ‘ramped’ up. LPAs need support to manage the increasing and accelerating expectations of their councillors and communities – who need a better understanding of the agenda and what can be achieved through the local plan, and to manage risk in the process as more and more interest groups get involved with the local plan examination process.

At the heart of this are two questions: how far can/could/should the local plan go, and how would you evidence more ambitious policies when (in most places) climate change expertise and experience at a local level is thin on the ground?

What risk does this present ?
There are 3 broad scenarios for LPAs. There are those for whom the council’s climate emergency declaration has happened close to or just after the local plan has been published. As they head towards examination – they are asking whether their plan now goes far enough, how to explain its limitations to councillors (many of whom were elected or are pinning re-election hopes on a ‘green ticket’), and whether an early review will be required. There are those that are about to publish their plan and are under increasing pressure to ‘go further’ – their concern is how changes might impact the timetable to adoption. And then there are those still early in the process, getting on with it but keen to quickly learn about what does/doesn’t work from their peers.

What should the support do and where should it focus?
In my mind the challenge boils down to how to get the most effective plan in place while reducing risk and saving time – classic PAS territory. There are 4 broad areas that local plans need to focus/strengthen:

  1. Stronger and clearer links to corporate climate change priorities, plans and targets;
  2. Developing a strong evidence base and better-aligned sustainability appraisal;
  3. Writing effective and challenging policy;
  4. Measurement – setting baseline, better monitoring and reporting methods;

New territory for many.  

Below I have set out my ideas to help pull all of this together. Truth is, I am still deciding what it looks like – but I never let a lack of a completely clear end-game prevent me starting something (momentum is the best way of achieving inspiration in my book). I am working on the following broad ideas to support plan-makers:

  • Engaging and training councillors and communities – Approaches to establishing a common understanding between councillors, communities and officers – what climate emergency means, and which policy options to explore, prioritise and fund;  
  • What does good look like? – Sharing examples of effective engagement, regional collaboration, evidence assembly and policy writing from the most forward-thinking councils;
  • ‘Climate Change Challenge’ – Creating some short, sharp ‘challenges’ to the early stages of the plan production process and then between Reg 18/19 to give LPAs an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their plan/policies (and perhaps better scoped and aligned Sustainability Appraisals);  
  • One place for good practice, guidance and examples – There is a dearth of good information, guidance, ideas and training out there but not everyone is aware of it, what it can do and where it applies. I’d like to gather this into one place and arrange it to reflect the different requirements and stages of the plan making process;
  • Access to the experts – Understanding the work and objectives of organisations involved in the fields of digitalisation/PlanTech, sustainable/modern methods of construction, decarbonised heating, climate change law and social justice. We’ll also look at closer collaborations with our peer organisations such as TCPA / RTPI / POS / CPRE;
  • Creating a support and knowledge-sharing network for frontline climate change plan makers.

Not straight-forward
Plan making can be complex and resource intensive. I understand the temptation to keep climate change issues at arms-length and to focus on the imperative to deliver housing numbers. Add to this issues of viability and all of the uncertainty/confusion about how far policy can push on energy performance/efficiency, and the task can seem quite daunting. I get it, and an overarching objective of this support is to share resources and build the capacity and confidence of a larger number of councils to push for the highest standards as a starting point.

Creating opportunity from risk
Two thirds of councils that have declared a climate emergency. They all need a credible corporate strategy and local plan to respond and deliver on it. This presents an interesting leadership opportunity. Can planning leverage increased corporate and political expectations to gain the required support and resources, and then create the evidence base and ambitious policy that will allow the local plan to push the boundaries on climate change? There’s arguably never been a better time to be as ambitious as we can be. 

Vision / Place Making
While I am looking at supporting LPAs with their imediate plan-making requirements, I don’t want to lose sight of the importance of having longer-term strategic approaches to ‘place’ as this is how the most significant impacts can be achieved.

Take viability (please, take it) – the impacts we can achieve by driving quality up/carbon emissions down using better design and more ambitious energy efficiency standards, while effective, result in the arguments and surrounding conversations about viability focusing at a housing unit level. Whereas when we are establishing, with our communities, visions at the level of ‘place’, climate change mitigation across the whole piece can be ‘designed-in’ from the very beginning. By creating places that consider the impact of where people live on how (and where) they have to travel to work, study, shop, relax and play, sustainability is built-in from the start.

Bringing everyone with us
According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), around 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction activities. The number rises to 45% when considering the whole of the built environment sector. This is an issue for planning, developers, builders, and architects not to mention supply chains and emerging new technology.

It’s a vast and interesting agenda, lots of players, lots of legislation, lots of good guidance – and lots of good intentions. But what could and should LPAs do to seize this agenda and get local plans at the forefront of delivering a zero-carbon future?

My view is that while it is far too big and complicated an area for planning to solve by itself, it is an opportunity for local government planning to show leadership and a united front, pushing local plans as far as they can go, and working with the development industry – pushing back on the appeals and working through the viability issues.

Right time – right thing to do?
It feels like the right time for PAS to help build on and support the plan-making work that councils are already doing and to try and link up with and learn from the best in the development sector. If there is one thing that this pandemic can teach us, it’s that you can never be too prepared or act too early in an emergency.

The support package I am planning to develop is a small but hopefully powerful start. Let me know if you think it’ll help and how it can be improved.   

Weeknotes 4

w/e 05/06/2020
TL/DR
Crikey – doing work in line with my job title

What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking about infrastructure, and how local authorities programme their capital projects. 
I’m also doing some programme management – in this new world how can we demonstrate that we are good value for money ? We don’t get “happy sheets” from zoom conversations! How do we measure our impact?

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
I spoke to two bunches of people in quite different contexts but both conversations turned to “what next?” for planning policy. 

Yes, the world is starting to look more normal, but some of what we’ve learned about “what works” during a pandemic is going to have long-term and possibly huge implications for office space, retail, tall buildings, travel, town centres – you name it. 

Something I find difficult to understand is how we can make local plans – previously a bold statement about the next 15 years based mainly on things carrying on like before but better – into a vehicle for change where we don’t really know where we’ll be in 15 weeks. 
I have a feeling that without something positive to say the answer will be further PD (retail to resi anyone?) which will lose the opportunity to improve the way things work in a thoughtful and more holistic way. 

What did you learn / read this week?
My GDS training on content design -continues. Apparently I have become a massive bore and all I talk about is customer needs. I can live with it. 

My database exploration hasn’t moved. I’m waiting for there to be a Venn diagram of feeling cleverer than usual and a clear couple of days in the diary. 

What did you make / achieve?
I made some chunks for our FAQ on coronavirus that I hope are OK. 

I also finished off a couple of chunky projects. Almost ready to invoice! Now I just need to invent a new product to replace the one that generated 80% of our turnover that we cannot do any more.

What are you looking forward to next week?
Next week I am really looking forward to seeing a different bit of Government. I (obviously) love MHCLG to bits but its going to be fun and interesting to see what else is going on that might, in the end, be on the plate of local govt planners. 

Weeknotes 3

w/e 25/05/2020
TL/DR
Finally ticking some things off the list. 

What are you thinking about?
I’m thinking about productivity. Specifically I’m thinking about my own productivity – without intending to I revisited some work I’d published as lock-down started and it was terrible. I think it’s only in hindsight than I’ve realised just how badly my work was affected for a week or two. 

To counteract the driftyness of life I’m returning to the spirit of pomodoro and breaking up the day with musical interludes. 

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
It was a short (and half term) week so not much. I started saying goodbye to a previous customer, and started saying hello to a potential new one. 

What did you learn / read this week?
I began my GDS training on content design – better late than never. As expected it made me think afresh about what we know about our customers and their needs. It turns out – not a lot. At least, not a lot that we can prove. 

It was interesting coming at the same time as a mild difference of opinion inside PAS on the merits of various approaches to marketing. You can’t think about marketing without thinking about segments and BANG you arrive at need. We do need to get better at this stuff – especially now we don’t have the crutch of 1000 happysheets to “prove” people value our work. More training, more thinking, then action.

My database exploration hasn’t moved. I’m waiting for there to be a Venn diagram opportunity of feeling cleverer than usual and a clear couple of days in the diary. 

What did you make / achieve?
My bit of the website is complete. That was a slog. Don’t look yet – I need to vacuum the carpet and put out some dips & nibbles. And a new menu structure so you can navigate around. 

I also had a really interesting and productive chat internally about where we might go with our slightly unloved and tatty councillor materials. Exciting – and again a brilliant coincidence that it happened while I was thinking about our customers’ needs? Or .. ?

What are you looking forward to next week?
I’m looking forward to catching up with one of the newest unitary authorities. I was already slightly in awe of how calmly they were doing what was obviously a very difficult job, and then they started doing it remotely while also restructuring. 

I’ve also blocked a day out for doing the work I know I need to do but keep avoiding. Pomodoro at the ready – those projects are getting outlined if it kills me.

Weeknotes 2

w/e 12/05/2020
TL/DR
End of alpha; making new friends

What are you thinking about?
I spent more time than usual in video calls this week. It’s made me think about the good bits (wearing shorts, not going to Euston at 7am) and the less good bits (I think it makes me a bit “floaty” and less engaged with the detail of things). 

I’m also gearing up for a couple of board meetings. One backwards-looking and the other hopefully a simple confirmation that we have asked ourselves the right questions. 

Who did you talk to outside of your organisation?
In the race for the line for the digital local plans alpha I spent lots of time with dxw and some time with the client side for the final show & tell and recommendations. I also caught up with some heads of planning from further afield trying to understand how they are coping with all this. 

I also did my first big zoom gig, for the latest public practice cohort. I know it’s obvious, but it’s difficult to read the room. I over-ran, but was described as a good mix of cynicism and optimism which is what I aim for. 

What did you learn / read this week?
Not much this week. Somehow learning and reading doesn’t feel enough like work to spend much work time doing. I haven’t even logged in to my “Introduction to content design” on futurelearn. I think I may need to put it on the calendar to make it official. 

My database exploration continues. I have belatedly noticed that “low code” is a thing. I am possibly going to scope out my land pipeline monitoring thing as an Appsheet app.  I know the local gov cool kits use create but I don’t like not knowing how much things cost. 

What did you make / achieve?
I am part-way through making a couple of project scoping documents for the infrastructure work along with building a list of “wise people” (aka new friends) to help me test ideas and formulate plans. If I followed you on twitter this week, it is entirely mercenary I’m afraid.

I also helped frame the recommendations / next steps for the digital local plan project. 

What are you looking forward to next week?

A bank holiday! And my greenhouse having plants in it!

I’m signed up to Town Legal’s Planners’ Question Time – the infrastructure episode but probably only will get to the second half. 
I’ll also be doing some less jazzy but worthy things relating to the health of our grant position and what lockdown means for our commercial activities too. 

Wouldn’t it be nice? Plan-making through the eyes of a plan lover.

It really troubles me that plan-making isn’t working. This isn’t a recent feeling, I’ve been involved in the writing and delivering of plans for much of my career. None of these plans were perfect yet they were written with an ambition to create a framework for a better future. The process of producing a plan for an area is hard, it’s emotional and often has far more to do with understanding people than it does planning. It is also a project that needs careful handling as it has a tendency to drift. Like much of local government, however, it is the role of conductor that always appealed to me. I’ve always felt that, in my career, there is no greater feeling than bringing people together to build a vision.


So why do we need to talk about this now? A crisis provides an opportunity to pause, take stock and to fall in love with making plans again.


A plan is a beautiful thing. It sets out the vision for an area and then goes on to express how that vision will be delivered. The vision is clear about the outcomes that are sought and when these are expected to be delivered. It is the product of a meaningful iterative conversation where all options are explored, and a strategy is chosen that best delivers the vision. The vision covers the long-term goal, whereas the policies or interventions that seek to deliver are focused, pragmatic and designed to secure quality for the local area. The plan contains a range of sites, more than are needed, thereby allowing for flexibility within a framework of acceptable alternatives. Policies focus on what a local area needs, supported by demographic and environmental data with required outcomes. Once this plan is approved it is delivered, monitored and evaluated against the vision.


The real joy is that you can plan for any area using this process. This allows you to choose the most appropriate geography for the outcomes you seek.


The key to a successful plan is the clarity of the vision and balancing the ambition with the likelihood of successful delivery. The vision allows for short term certainty with flexibility for the later years. It accepts that we just don’t know what will happen in the future, so our vision is resilient rather than rigid. It seeks to secure resilience through strategic policies such as climate, health, mobility and affordability and sees that decisions taken on these issues underpin the development of the area.


Certainty is not secured through detail or complexity. Interventions seek to give sufficient comfort for investment but not so much detail to stifle innovation and adaptability. Certainty may come in the form of location yet leave the ‘what’ and ‘how’ for a deeper, more meaningful conversation with the right range of people at the appropriate time. The detail currently needed to secure an allocation in a plan has arguably failed to secure certainty of delivery, improve quality or guarantee greater community benefit. It has had the effect of slowing down plan production and stifling local ambition. The evidence required to prove deliverability and viability of schemes at the plan stage carry far more weight than the outcomes that the policies seek to achieve.


Critically, the detail at plan stage rarely secures a smooth route through the application stage. Policies seeking to achieve step changes in terms of affordability and climate resilience for an area often fail to make it through the examination. They too are tested on deliverability and viability and this is based on a forecast of the future using individual scheme data. So how are we going to make the necessary changes to how our local areas operate if we cannot provide enough evidence to support their inclusion in the plan? If having enough evidence still fails to achieve what we have set out in policy, is it right that the bar is still left so high?


Part of the solution lies in the level of the plan and the primacy of the policies. Overarching strategic policies have a role in setting the direction and non-negotiable elements of place making. It is at the local level where I feel that having a system which focuses on what an area needs over what someone can ‘prove’ can be delivered at an examination is worthy of consideration. So, what should you keep and what would you lose? Personally, I would lose deliverability, viability and duty to cooperate. These elements have been brought into the process to prevent the allocation of undeliverable or unsustainable sites, make sure that the necessary infrastructure could be provided and that the totality of housing need was met. Yet putting my systems thinking hat on, I know that no number of checks and balances in a system make it work better if the purpose and the end user have not been at the heart of the design. I now find myself wondering whether we just need to take some of these checks out and replace them with flexibility. Flexibility in this sense creates greater certainty.


If we added in flexibility and took out the increasing numbers of tests the focus could then shift to assessing the sustainability and affordability of the proposals. These aspects require greater attention to design and location of development and less of a focus on speed and viability. The speed and viability of development would naturally dictate the order of delivery, but this could be managed through monitoring, investment and controlled release of allocations at the local level.


Post COVID19 it is going to be even more important to deliver a vision that secures ecologically sound and socially just places. The current pandemic puts into sharp focus the way that our places work for those with choices and those without. To make tangible improvements there must be a shift in how we assess the suitability of our vision, how we evaluate our progress in delivering this vision and the flexibility we have to change our interventions. Core to this is a more holistic approach to measuring the impact of planning on places.

Wouldn’t that be nice?