Planning for stinky stuff

To begin with a declaration of interest: PAS is only a tiny part of the Local Government Group, and in our collective DNA is the belief that local government is (by and large) the most effective level for getting things done. I don’t hear people say this out loud, but I suspect we are localists to the lowest level of political accountability.

Recently I have been trying to help out on a small project for the group. The details are not important here, because what interested me was listening to councillors thinking through how they’re going to take difficult planning decisions – the kind which might be “right” but could cost them their seat. I’ve argued before that planning is shifting towards the political over the technical, and I’m beginning to be able to put some thoughts in order now.

Just because I like the veneer of structure a numbered list creates, I reckon a new model for planning turns on three things:

1. Plan avoidance can’t be allowed to have political benefit

We all know of places that seem content to rub along without a plan, perhaps because the leadership feel it allows them to retain some flexibility when it comes to applications. What I hadn’t realised is that this is sometimes a more deliberate strategy.

Let’s say two neighbours – ‘A’ and ‘B’ – both have a need for some politically inexpedient development. Place ‘A’ takes a breath, adopts a plan and gets on with it. The plan-led approach. Place ‘B’ does not. What happens next ? In some cases, while proposals in ‘B’ are wrapped up in appeals and process the existing development in ‘A’ comes under pressure to expand and extend. Place ‘A’ has suffered first mover disadvantage.

Yes, the fact that the planning system has been going through some kind of mangle for almost the last decade hasn’t helped, and there are many bona fide reasons to not have a plan just now. But the presumption in favour of sustainable development and other changes coming down the pipe are rebalancing the situation in favour of those with a plan. Plan avoidance is about to look like an abdication of responsibility.

2. Fair share

Many of these arguments across districts turn on what constitutes a “fair share” towards an issue. Soon, the new duty to cooperate will formalise the argument to some extent. The expectation is that everyone involved will be grown up enough to debate and accept a bit of give and take.

But it worries me that we have thrown out the regional dataset baby with the regional plan bathwater. There is some great work being done by some data observatories, but it’s patchy and ultimately vulnerable to budget pressures.

It’s not really territory for PAS, and to many looks a bit geeky and dull. But without some kind of bedrock on which to have a discussion about “fair” there is very real risk that we retreat into parochialism. I can foresee two authorities slugging it out in public over whose dataset is most recent / best – and backing it all up will be some kind of political confirmation bias.

3. Active leadership

This is where I may want to have my cake and eat it. The idea of a local plan – a long-term, structural and strategic plan – being a political football is not cool. Plans should give certainty, and you can’t have plans flip-flopping with every change of control. Check the comments at the Argus to see how repeated restarts of a plan feel to people.

And yet, there are some councillors who do a great job of  using the local plan as evidence of their civic leadership. Rather than worrying that aspects of it will be used to campaign against them, they are able to articulate the overall value (and the compromises required) in straightforward language.

Not for them the fallback of the “baddies from bristol” – these are the councillors (and possibly the places) that will make localism work. But the price for this might be that different visions for civic leadership require clear lines of difference in a local plan – as for education or welfare. Perhaps not plans as political footballs, but plans that must recognise political direction.

 

Making unpopular planning decisions

So, the world is ramping up the pressure on those without a plan. And your plan will need to play fair to your region and be flexible enough to allow councillors to feel it reflects their goals for the place. And in order to be worthwhile, it has to grasp the nettle in ways that no other plan or policy is able to (SCS, I’m still looking at you).

I would be lying if I didn’t end with a confession that it is not unusual for our project scoping in this area to end up with some kind of lament for RSS. But we have to put our local government money where our local government mouth is. And it may only be that I tend to meet the more forward-thinking peer councillors, but my sense is that they are way ahead of officers in their acknowledgement of the culture change this requires of us all.

Anyway, we’re doing our own work on this (via leadership academies) and contributing towards some work of the group later this year. PAS began in 2004 being almost entirely focused on process (NI109 and PPS12), in recent years we’ve got better at content (viability and plan-making ). Perhaps this last iteration of the PAS experience is where we embrace the politics of place ? Because without political leadership planners cannot begin to create plans for stinky stuff. This has always been true, but never more so than now.

 

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