Is our plan-led system a self-delusion ?

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

  1. Find the places without a plan
  2. Force them to shake it down, so that it contains only those things that they really, really, really need
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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4 thoughts on “Is our plan-led system a self-delusion ?

  1. This is a fascinating argument and one there is a certain logic in. I am currently dealing with an appeal for client in Wales. A classic example of the situation.

    Slightly different scenarios but the principles identical. Vacant housing site in a sustainable settlement. No technical or other problems. Development complies with adopted development plan (fairly old but not outlandish).

    LPA has emerging post inquiry UDP which it says (perhaps rightly) is a significant material consideration. Further progress delayed by need to do late in the day modification. But it intended to adopt (so it says).

    However against that emerging plan it is massively not delivering housing sites to anywhere near the plan housing target for its end date of 2015. (10 years from start date its provided approx 40%) Housing the LPA justified as needed less than 3 years ago at the EIP. Housing to deliver one of the key plan objectives. For whatever reason (not least glacial progress on a UDP and recent market cliff fall) it isn’t being delivered through permission. By the way this is a nice locality, plenty of demand not some place with a failing market.

    Assuming its own “planned” “need” wont be met. LPA argues the classic housing land supply case that low completions mean it has a 5 year + supply and above and it doesn’t need to release more sites as would breach plan strategy and hierarchy. Said “supply” will take us beyond the plan end-date when no doubt a couple of £m will be spent arguing over a new target that probably wont be achieved. Ok there is nothing unusual in all of this i know.

    But this brings me to the logic…. Plan sets a target (which may or may not be appropriate), but it isnt being met. Realistically it cant be met as no way will market deliver 1100 dwellings each year between now and 2015. Council must know its not going to meet it but argues against release.

    Thereby the logic… Why have a plan when in any event LPA seems perverse and actively not delivering its target?

    It a simplistic logic but i have some sympathy for the view

  2. You made an important statement : Most developments ended up in inquiry, and he was unable to see that any change to localism would change this.

    The point is that if you still have a Planning Inspectorate that overturn your decisions, whether they are backed by a local plan or not, you are never going to have a system that does what the general population, or councillors, want- i.e. one that takes account of local needs, not how big a pocket the developers have, and how much they can pour into an appeal to win it.

    We should abolish the Planning Inspectorate, or at least change its terms of reference, so that we can have local decision making.

    There is no place for non strategic minor applications to be decided by Inpectors from Bristol, who are unelected and unaccountable.

  3. Its a boring old debate. The fact is on a crowded island like ours we will always need to ‘plan’ where development goes. Now ‘how’ this will be done and by ‘whom’ is a matter of politics.

    The fact is that the vast majority of planning applications are dealt with very effectively and indeed ‘approved’ under the present plan-led system, without any recourse to appeal.

    But clearly under the present political regime the wolves are gathering at the door.

  4. I disagree that planners don’t have a clear idea what their plan is for.

    I do think planners struggle – and I say this from a perspective of working in different planning authorities and at different levels of local government- with keeping momentum going in a long process that has a large political interest in keeping ‘lines on a map’ to a minimum, instead of seeing the drawing of lines on a map as the start of a process to help people understand and communicate around issues that are relevant to an area.

    Planners know what our plan is for, as well as what it could deliver and what it won’t be able to deliver. It is making sure the mechanisms are in place to keep everyone motivated on making the plan happen, rather than taking the ‘breathing spaces’ offered up by political reshuffles, national government changes or other encouragements to slow down. Plans are politically accountable and I don’t have a problem with this, but there is little recognition of it when people criticise the policy conflicts we end up with (as described by previous posters above). We don’t plan in a self contained planning policy world.

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