Let’s get down to fundamentals

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.

2 thoughts on “Let’s get down to fundamentals

  1. Reading this made me think about some of the views I have heard / eavesdropped on about the LDF production process while ‘out and about’ over the last few months. I have heard people say ‘we need to get regeneration scheme X going, planning is a lower priority’ (planning getting in the way?). Others have said ‘we need development not strategy’. In these times I can sympathise with these views to some extent but surely action underpinned by a decent (core?) strategy produces better results.

    I have recently started an MA in Town & Country Planning so my brain is being washed by text books and course materials. Reading up about the history of planning over the last 200 or so years, planners have continually ‘got it wrong’ to different degrees and in some places more than others. If I am getting the flavour of your post right, and understanding the aspirations of the ‘new’ system, then now is a good time and environment for planners to approach their plan making differently – some from a more ‘humble’ (we dont know it all, we’re possibly wrong) standpoint, and others from a freer, ‘let’s create a place we know people want’ perpective.

    Easy to say I know, and not being a planner or having the experience of plan making precludes me from personally comparing new and old systems. But your point about how we live our lives is relevant – we feel much more confident making decisions if we are clear about what it is we want/need, have looked into the alternatives, and maybe asked one or two trusted friends for advice. Enough of the analogies.

    What impresses me is when I go to events or speak to planners is where people are positive about the new system(even though they are wrestling with it). These people are creating the ‘practice’ you mention, good and bad practice all has its place as we look to learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t (is bad practcice you can learn form better than no practice at all?). Going back to a system where you dont need to evidence your choices or decisions can’t be the answer. No one can guarantee that decisions made via the ‘new’ system will mean mistakes aren’t made. It may mean that there are fewer mistakes or that they have fewer negative conseqences because the decisions have been etter informed and evidenced. History, as ever, will be our judge.

  2. Hello from the coal face.

    interesting stuff and all of which I/we here wholeheartedly support. What has struck me since joining my local autbority is not why (or how) should we do an evidence based spatial plan, or what is the point of all this spatail planning navel gazing is (my guys are really up for it), rather its about persuading others (coporate, LSP and delivery partners) to see the value of it. can they believe that the leopard has changed its spots, can planners and plans really be helpful?

    The obvious answer from planners is ‘yes’. the comeback from others is ‘prove it’.

    So we need a busness case for people buying into and using the LDF process, with real-life eg’s of how say, a slightly slower lead-in time paid off when it came to the quality of the outcome. this is particaularly challenging when you realise that there is already a load of outcome focused partnership working happening across Local Gov and its partners, and that most people want something to happen tomorrow rather than 18 months time. (10 years is and always was pants).

    thoughts/business cases welcome.

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