Can fantasy become reality? A councillor perspective on planning and localism

This is a guest post by Councillor Claire Denman (Crawley Borough Council) as part of our series on ‘Blueprints for ‘open source’ planning’

Last night I chaired my first LDF working group meeting since the elections. Our agenda had been prepared a month in advance to ensure that we remained on schedule in accordance with our LDS. It was obsolete before the meeting even started. Should I cancel the meeting and allow our planning officers time to watch the world cup that night? Or should we carry on and see what we can do to progress our core strategy?

The underlying question that no one could answer at the meeting was; ‘what will planning look like in the next few years?’ Will it flounder under the strain of localism or will the new localism agenda open up possibilities that make a clearer link between community aspirations and the planning process? Will the removal of a top down approach enable us to achieve our community goals?

I believe that the removal of RSS targets will result in a planning system driven by the psyche and philosophy of the local authority. I am fortunate that my local authority has a clear view on the symbiotic relationship that exists between employment and housing growth, resulting in social and economic benefits to both Crawley and the wider sub region. Our position is enhanced by a strong relationship with our neighbours, resulting in a shared vision of both employment and housing. This provides the capacity to continue to work together embracing a bottom up approach based on a mutual understanding of community need. Traditionally this has been underpinned at a political level through a voluntary sub regional governance arrangement. We undertake joint plan making and shared working through studies such as a joint Employment Land Review to assist in decision making.

So what happens if a local authority embraces a different set of priorities? Perhaps they haul up the drawbridge to prevent further housing growth in line with valid community concerns. What are the consequences of not meeting housing need? It could be argued that failing to meet housing need will stifle economic growth, resulting in a detrimental effect on the economy. Whilst we are free to determine our spatial future, the balance between the environment, character and heritage of an area, and the economic aspirations remain a challenge. We have tools at our disposal to assist the local community in determining their spatial priorities.

Locally generated needs assessments should uncover the true housing needs of a local area. Character and heritage appraisals should allow community insight into the areas of special quality which deserve a level of protection, and areas which may accommodate further development. However the elephant in the room is the tricky issue of public consultation whilst managing expectations. How do you ensure that public consultation takes a bottom up approach?  Looking back to our first round of public consultation, we provided residents with our preferred option (which has a resonance with my experiences of consultation for the RSS!)
  
What is the future of the LDF? We still have to comply with the test of soundness and I believe that this may become more difficult to achieve. Rather than having targets dictated from a higher level, the core strategy will need to be grounded by a very strong evidence base to ensure that the councils vision is robust and will stand up to scrutiny. This may in turn slow the process down. This may not be a bad thing as it creates a good environment for working with other local authorities on shared objectives as well as allowing for checks and balances to help ensure that we are taking our communities with us in achieving our spatial vision. The LDF core strategy should be the spatial interpretation of the community strategy based on information gathered from our communities and partners so you could arguably ask what has changed?
 
I believe that the localism agenda is one of the greatest changes in recent planning history. We have to genuinely listen to our communities, accepting that different communities have different priorities. We have to ensure that our vision is firmly based on evidence. This should make spatial planning more relevant. Most importantly, local authorities are finally being treated as grown ups, making informed decisions based on the need for present and future communities. I am up for the challenge, are you?

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