I met an old colleague (as in ex- rather than ancient) last night. This is someone who for several years worked to deliver our LDF support. In the course of a fairly typical planning-after-a-couple-of-pints conversation, he confessed that from his new perspective, strategic planning was largely a waste of time. The idea that anyone engages meaningfully with the abstract, long-term principles in a way that changed how an application was handled was a convenient fiction.
Are we deluding ourselves ?
Clearly this is pretty strong stuff, but this is someone whose opinion I trust. His new perspective is from a major developer with big pockets but a shortage of land. I was trying to sound him out about neighbourhood plans – perhaps commercially sponsored neighbourhood plans will allow a local discussion of how developments can be framed to deliver local benefits more effectively than the section 106 process allows. I was expecting some kind of cautious cynicism – what I found was disinterest.
This significant developer found local authority’s plans to be irrelevant and the planning process of zero value. Most developments ended up in inquiry, and he was unable to see that any change to localism would change this. The point is not that the legislation needed further tweaking, but that we as a society do not accept the principle of being planned. There is some residual suspicion of bureaucrats and their plans that means that culturally we are doomed to fail.
Should we just give up on planning ?
I’m sure these points are not new, and for most planners are kicked around a bit in a common room somewhere during the first term or two at college. But, as sometimes happens, it happened at the end of the day that had begun with a different conversation about how to get the local plan in place for those remaining places that have given up / been de-railed / have no clear idea of what they are trying to do.
One of the most difficult lessons to come out of our work supporting councils with plan-making (and I’ll say this quietly, just between us) is that a significant minority of them don’t have a clear understanding of what their plan is for. Is it any surprise, then, that they bumble along without ever really getting a plan adopted ?
So, in what was quite a dark Tuesday for me, I had a combination of places not being sure of why they are making a plan that is to be consumed by people who don’t care what it says anyway.
A false choice
On reflection, this choice between “plan-led” and “application-led” is a false one. The issue is simply that bad plans offer little value, and good plans offer lots. This isn’t really news, but it means that we come circling back to a very difficult question that I’m not sure we have any good answers for:
how do we understand the value of a plan (given that it makes some things not happen) ?
It’s not really the PAS way to worry too much about philosophy. Our pragmatic response is simply to
- Find the places without a plan
- Force them to shake it down, so that it contains only those things that they really, really, really need
- Get them to shedule it properly, recognising how long the various bits take and being clear about the political decision-making required for each phase
- If it takes longer than 18 months, return to #2 and repeat
If you don’t have a plan yet, you can expect the phone to ring in the next couple of weeks.