Sam Davies

Planning is a moral question

I have a short update this week, summarising what seem to me to be important themes emerging from two events I attended this week run by the UK’s professional planning bodies, the RTPI and the TCPA. Both pointed to a very active, indeed existential, debate within the sector about what – and who – planning is for, set within the context of the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The RTPI online lecture, given by Professor Gavin Parker, was entitled ‘Community-led planning – Planning’s uneasy relationship with Localism’. Professor Parker framed his argument as “planning needs communities as much as communities need planning…” and reviewed the progress to date of Neighbourhood Plans as the main means of increasing local involvement in the planning system (you can see a previous blog about my own thoughts on this subject). He identified a fundamental and frustrating mismatch in the understanding of their purpose: government sees it as a specific instrument for increasing the housing stock, while communities often hope that, in the absence of any alternative mechanism, a Neighbourhood Plan will provide a comprehensive means of reviewing and addressing how their neighbourhood functions ‘in the round’.

He also noted a conundrum which I raised in last week’s blog: at present the process for meaningful local community involvement in formulating Neighbourhood and Local Plans (and other forms of ‘engagement’) pre-supposes that residents have the time, capacity, and willingness to engage; but can also then be swift to dismiss those who do engage as privileged, unrepresentative, NIMBYs etc.  Professor Parker’s solution is to advocate for a much more active investment in the capacity of both council planning teams and local communities themselves to enable the potential upsides of community collaboration to be achieved. I’d love to see this happen but I’m not holding my breath.

Community in planning

The TCPA Annual Conference, on the theme of ‘Unpicking levelling up – what does it mean for place making?’, covered similar ground about the purpose of planning. There were passionate statements about its responsibility towards the public interest and the possibilities it should offer for societal transformation: “Planning is a moral question”. The two main sessions were about planning’s role in achieving ‘pride in place’ and ‘health and well-being’, with many references to, and examples of, not just community involvement in, but community leadership of, planning and development initiatives to promote these goals.

One of the most interesting presentations was about Grosvenor’s Community Charter ‘Positive Space‘. Grosvenor are a major developer, and really put the cat among the pigeons in 2019 with their research project into public attitudes towards the planning process, which identified that only 2% of the public trusted developers and only 7% trusted local planning authorities. The Charter is their response to addressing that deficit, with four key commitments to ‘listen up’; ‘open up’; ‘make it easier’; and ‘be accountable’.

On the evidence of these two events, there is a willingness within the upper echelons of the planning sector to acknowledge current shortcomings, a desire to improve relations, and some really good ideas about how to do it, stretching across the whole gamut of public policy areas. The fact that the health and wellbeing session was led by none other than Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and his specific reference to the corrosive effect of feelings of alienation on individual and societal welfare, indicates the critical importance of getting this right.

Sam Davies

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