I was out at York this week, helping out at an event for our post-RSS world. (as an aside, the event is famous as our “Take That reunion” ticket – the single fastest-selling thing we’ve ever put on. 160 places went in a few hours, with residual demand meaning we’ll probably put some more on.)
As always, it was refreshing and invigorating to be amongst real planners. Alongside the therapeutic sharing of the state we’re in, there were a couple of interesting things I personally took away from the day. The first is a picture. I realize I’m probably in the minority in our sector who can’t really “do” words. I can only grasp something if I can see it as a diagram. Arising from our lively conversation about localism was a recognition that planning will have to shift.
The bishop had cleverly constructed a day in part delivered by some councillor peers. Even though no one pretended they understood localism yet, it really brought out the contrast between the “professional” side of the planners and the “political” side of the councillors.
I thought I could detect amongst the planners a recognition that the nature of plans was going to have to change. Less technical, more human and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and risk. There was also a fairly obvious point about how planning becomes slightly silly if carried out at either end of the spectrum. Localism isn’t going to mean the local people start with a blank sheet of paper and just make stuff up about parks, swimming pools and farmers markets, just as traditional planning isn’t carried out by heartless robots in love with cheap materials.
My second take-away from the day was remembering that planning is not to be done in isolation. One of the reasons planning is tough to do is that the decision-making that is supposed to happen up-stream often doesn’t. This is why planners are often the bad guys who seem like they “want” to cover the land with turbines and second homes. This has been brought into very sharp focus with the abolition of regional strategies.
The removal of imposed targets has exposed weaknesses in leadership
I’m not sure it’s true, but there is a story that following the collapse of the soviet union alcoholism rates soared. The thinking is that the regime may have been a bit rubbish in some ways but it provided certainty. The people, freed from totalitarianism, responded negatively and (perhaps just in the short term) craved the comfort of the old ways.
In similar fashion the removal of regional housing allocations has meant many Councils have realized that they are unable to agree with their own plan. Places had not previously engaged with the decisions in front of them because their starting point was compliance within a hierarchy of plans. Many times in the day I heard people painting themselves into corners – localism means that we pay attention to the people, and the people are selfish, irrational and unconcerned with long-term outcomes. We might as well throw away our plan.
Remember Maslow’s maxim about hammers and nails. As planners we think the answer is to be found in our plan. Localism, and the new breeze of consensus and mediation, means that perhaps more than ever we need the rest of the corporate toolkit to play its part. Getting people to agree with the content of a core strategy is actually quite a slow way of making decisions, and there are better, quicker, cheaper ways of making up a collective mind. Sustainable Community Strategy – I’m looking at you.