What planning reform is going to leave unchanged

We in PAS are change agents. We like the new, and can’t really look at the way things are without wanting to improve it. I think it’s important that people under pressure in this year’s budget round are also nudged to think about what is coming over the horizon so we won’t stop doing this, but it’s not the whole story.

Sometimes it’s worth stepping back and thinking about what is not going to change. When you can identify things that are going to be as true in 10 or 20 years as today, then the work you do to improve them cannot be wasted. For an online retailer, it might be price and speed – for them there is no alternative future where people are going to want things to cost more and slower to arrive. For us in planning though – what things should we be “doubling down” on? I offer three:

Development is about change

Development Management is about telling people that their environment is going to change and hoping they agree that the short-term disruption is worth the long-term benefit. But humans hate change, and it leads to a lop-sided process where the people who have most to gain (people will have houses to buy!) are absent and the people with the longest exposure to the status quo find it natural to organise against the unknown.

We call this “community engagement” at the moment, but I think the underlying issue is human psychology. We need to work on reducing the friction and fear of change, and ensure that development brings tangible benefits to everyone.

Planning is about choices

One of the things taken as read in the conversation about “speeding up” the planning system is the sense that there is only one obvious thing to do. But rarely is there only one solution, instead it is a choice between ‘A’ or ‘B’ or even “do” or “not do”. A wise person once told me they saw planning as “structured decision-making” and I think I can now see what they meant.

This is why having a clear sense of the future is so important. Assessing an application becomes a structured decision along the lines of “does saying ‘yes’ to this application get us closer or further away from our future?”. Obviously the more discussed and understood the future is the better use it is. Not saying that it’s easy. Does every adult have a private car in our place’s future?

Planning is judo with the market

One of the many reasons that planning is interesting is that in different places it does different jobs. Sometimes it encourages and helps, sometimes it resists and refuses. What it normally boils down to is trying to make the market do something it wouldn’t do otherwise (or wouldn’t do as well, or as much).

I learned from our early work with the Housing Delivery Test that some planners had a deep knowledge of their local markets and relationships with the people active in them. Others had almost no connection to that world, and simply collect evidence in quite a passive way. But there is no posible future where development happens without an economic angle, and to attempt to influence the market without understanding it is hopeless.

So, what difference will planning reform make?

This is not to suggest that planning reform has no relevance to us, more that local leadership comes first. The best places have a strong sense of what they are trying to achieve and mostly how to get there. National policy is important but only as a way of understanding how to work with the grain of the planning system rather than against it.

I worry that some people have downed tools and are waiting to find out their housing numbers. But rather than deferring starting at all, I hope that the best places are working on the things that won’t change. How to frame development as a positive force that brings us closer to a sustainable pattern of living, in a way that is economically literate for land owners and that allows a more diverse discussion on benefit and cost. These things are hard, and will be hard in 10 years time too – that’s why they are worth constant work.


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