From 2013 – a message to the past

This is a guest post by Brian Curran as part of our series on ‘Blueprints for ‘open source’ planning’

On reflection

Looking back, it feels like it wasn’t long before we all realized that a prerequisite for localism was strong nationalism. ‘Open source’ planning was doomed if everyone stubbornly invented their own method – we needed a standard 80% and a local 20%. ‘Open source’ became a language to describe how the boilerplate national approach was implemented locally.  It was the straightforwardness of the national framework that provides clarity even when, as sometimes happens, a community chose to define itself in opposition to what is generally accepted to be our national best interest.

Part of the problem we began with was the shoddy law. Scattered across statutes and case law, it was an unwieldy tool for specialists, let alone normal people. When we had a lightweight and cheaply updated policy (the purpose) and regulations (the rules) it was a revelation. A strong practitioner review and the fact that they are updated and issued as complete documents means that legal challenge and friction costs have reduced drastically.

The financial pressure we were all under forced us to regain our purpose as planners. Rather than trying to be the solution to everyones awkward problems, we shrank our horizons and recognized that some things are best dealt with elsewhere. For example, a thoughtful approach to taxes on energy and second homes have made a far bigger difference to carbon and housing affordability than simply trying to plan for more energy efficient buildings. Similarly, being comfortable with developers and purchasers taking risks rather than trying to regulate away all uncertainty saved time and effort.

Enforcement

The risk of the changes we went through was that planning was seen as ‘softening up’. It had been a problem for decades that regulation was engaging with naturally law-abiding people and unable to cope with the few outlaws that existed. It could have become a vicious spiral – but luckily equity and accountability were at the heart of our quiet revolution.

It simply made sense that the cost of ignoring or willful disregard of the rules of development was made high enough – up to and including criminalization – to ensure fairness for all. Yes, of course just because something could give someone a criminal record doesn’t mean it must. As I’m fond of telling each new set of councillors on the committee – what is the point of gathering their combined experience and brainpower just to operate the rules like robots?

Strategic Planning

What began with the infamous decision about fast food near a school became, over time, a more rounded and holistic decision-making process. It tested us planners – I can remember some of our team immediately trying to define ‘close’ in policy so we might measure what “close to a school” meant. Of course, we now have a much more mature relationship with our committee and recognize that a degree of uncertainty is not only inevitable it is to be welcomed.

The biggest learning curve remains our ability to communicate effectively with our public. We still have a strong NIMBY lobby, and people are still change averse and mistrusting. However, being clear that planning is about the long-term good of us all and putting genuine decisions in the open has improved things enormously. We learned alot from the ‘participatory budget’ people – and in fact our work overlaps in many ways now.

Sometimes it’s the small changes that make a big difference and turning a process called “options generation and appraisal” into “decisions and consequences” allowed people to understand the long-term effects of blocking or directing change. Getting newspapers and the media involved helped – while it sometimes generated more heat than light it also ensured that things did not divide down solely along political lines.

So, not only do we have lighter-weight plans and less evidence but we don’t get them tested. Personally, I miss the reassuring ‘stamp’ of soundness, but if we’re honest the inspectorate was never about ‘good’ planning. Just as GCSEs might not be a good proxy for learning, having a sound plan was no indicator that you knew what you were doing or had the backing of your council leadership.

Applications

The part of the process that has changed least is the application process itself. I suppose we’re a bit cleverer about distinguishing between low impact, low hassle applications and where we need to apply a bit of planning magic. That we do the initial triage in public took a bit of courage, but it now feels normal. We’ve also saved heaps of money and hassle by agreeing common process language nationally and no longer need to each buy our own systems.

We’re also more sensible about being helpful to the council and other partners. I think some of us hid behind the ‘quasi-judicial’ language and had a bit of the bunker mentality. Nowadays we like to be liked, and send out a questionnaire each year to everyone with a plan to deliver that says (in so many words) “have we helped you get on with things?”.

Lastly, changing the role of the information supporting an application really helped. We fell into the trap of asking for everything and only using up to the point of making a decision – after which it was filed and forgotten. Unsurprisingly, when all the things we asked for became an enforceable part of the permission the volume of paperwork shrunk by 90% overnight. We now have time to read and consult on everything, because everything really matters.

[this message was found on a late train from Charing Cross, and handed in to us]

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