I was asked to speak at the LGC ‘Fundamentals of Planning’ conference last month, and it got me thinking about the really fundamental issues affecting us planners, as we continue with the (no longer) ‘new’ system. I will be honest with you, I am not normally one of the people to say ‘every problem is an opportunity’, but in this case, I really believe it is. I was fortunate enough to work for CLG at the time the revisions were being worked on, so I was able to work with the drivers for change, rather than rail against them.
I used the talk to compare certain aspects of the pre-2004 system with the one we have now, and a number of pretty basic things struck me. Firstly, I was reminded that my first job in a Local Authority, which started in 1995 with a review of the existing ‘local plan’ policies, led to my being telephoned by my boss in 2005 to ask if I wanted to join them all to celebrate the adoption of the replacement local plan. 10 years to adopt a 10-year ‘forward looking’ document. I know that authority was not alone in the ‘speed’ of that adoption. Secondly, I was reminded of what I believe is perhaps the biggest culture change of all. Planners can be……..wrong. In the past, the adoption of a local plan was a fait accompli. It was a matter of time taken to argue the toss for this site or that site, but basically, the plan would definitely be adopted at some point. The main suite of numerous detailed controlling policies would be intact. No-one could say ‘sorry, this plan is actually not any use, does not do what it should do, and is not fit for purpose’. In addition, evidence was not required to support policies which were not challenged. Now, of course, we have the concept of ‘soundness’, and the possibility that the plan can indeed be unfit, and will not be able to be adopted. Evidence must be gathered to support all policies within it, not just those that are challenged, and not just at the end of the process.
This actually offers a huge opportunity to clear out all the detritus from old style plans, to really focus on what the community is saying they want to see in the place they live in (not the plan they don’t look at), and to provide confidence for each and every one of us that what we are saying in these plans is, to borrow the ‘sound’ phrases, justified and effective. We think about the rest of our lives in this way, whether it’s buying a new car, or computer, or even choosing which school to send our children to. We wouldn’t wait for he car to break down before researching how likely that was to have happened, so why won’t we make sure our plans are made on well-evidenced decisions.
We also need confidence to do things in this way. Confidence that comes from positive experiences. Here at PAS we are always looking for best practice to share, and it is out there, it is happening, and the speed of change will definitely gather pace as more and more councils realise that it doesn’t matter you can now be told you are ‘wrong’, it actually matters that you now have the opportunity to make sure you get things right.