In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.
This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.
More and more, decision making on planning is being left to the local level, and some pretty big decisions that once were taken nationally and regionally are now left to local politicians. Local councillors have to take decisions about housing need and requirements, based on local assessments of need; they’re left to identify land for development to meet these and other needs; and they have to take decisions about infrastructure delivery and requirements to facilitate growth. So they need a strategic understanding of their area and how it works with surrounding areas, they need to understand national priorities and pressures and perhaps most importantly they are responsible for balancing the need for growth with the desire to protect. This is undoubtedly the biggest problem for local councillors when it comes to planning – the balancing of local needs when faced with the inevitable pressure from those who wish to protect their views, green spaces, wildlife, property values, open space etc.
There is potentially a critical role for local politicians here as community champions, representing the interests of all their constituents, not just the noisy ones, particularly in relation to the development of new homes. How much more could we achieve if our local councillors were better equipped to counter some of the Nimby arguments used to resist new homes, if they could balance local opposition with an understanding of the need for strategic, long term planning and if they could put forward better arguments supporting the need for new homes? How different would things look then? Raising awareness amongst councillors, providing them with the ammunition they need to counter opposition and having local planning champions may just make a difference to the way planning and the need for new homes is perceived. If we could introduce this nationally too then we may just get more of the change that is needed. What we need are planning champions not planning bashers!
How do we achieve this? How do we change the perception of planning, turning what many see as a hindrance into a positive opportunity? Do we gradually erode the planning system so things turn into a developers free for all? Do we have specific zones where we want to steer growth and relax planning in those areas to make things easier? Or do we use planning to get the development we want, the quality spaces and communities where people like to live?
One of the things we need to remember in terms of housing growth in particular, is that the private sector led developments of the 1980s across the south and west of England were poorly planned and designed, they are unattractive sprawls of housing often with few facilities, on the edge of towns and cities. Is this really what we want to go back to? I hope not. What we need now are properly planned extensions to existing towns and cities, designed, planned and built in partnership with public, private and community sectors, to deliver places where people want to live, that enhance the existing urban area and integrate with it.
So the question remains – do we have enough planning champions, locally and nationally, and what more should we be doing to ensure politicians have a better understanding and a more positive connection with the planning system?