In praise – once again – of our planners

I was invited round to Arup yesterday, to speak at an event for the National Planning Forum (NPF), along with (the rather luminous) James Harris of the Royal Town Planning Institute, (the extremely hilarious) Andrew Whitaker of the Home Builders Federation and (the ever genius) David Waterhouse of Design Council/CABE. No, I have absolutely no idea why they asked me. Especially as the room was filled with uber-sophisticated big-brain planners. What could I tell these people? But it was a complete delight to be there, hugely enjoyable, among the eminence grises of the planning community. There is a lot of wisdom vested in the NPF, and you can only hope that they are effectively capturing their institutional memory for future generations.

And it looks like being a “white January” all right, with the Housing White Paper due (currently tipped for either 11 or the 18 January), as well as the report from the Housing Task Force of the All Party Parliamentary Group, and the report from the LGA Housing Commission. Not to mention ALL the other responses: clearly the RTPI is gearing up, alongside the NPF, and presumably every other industry body (I am seeing the British Property Federation tomorrow and no doubt they are beavering away). It promises to be a veritable snowstorm of paperwork, in fact.

Yesterday I found myself, and not for the first time (see blog 2 July 2015) singing the praises of the UK planning system and our planners, expressing a fervent aspiration that 2017 might see a true and profound renaissance of confidence in the planning community, which has been more than somewhat downtrodden for some years.

And it needs to happen. Fast. The NPPF is a truly excellent document (and I would say this, even were Greg Clark not its author) but it now needs to actually be implemented. Particularly paragraph 47 “to boost significantly the supply of housing”. And that is going to take a renewed sense of empowerment among planners, as well as the elected members of planning committees. I do detect a new sense of purpose from the RTPI (which has published “16 ways to solve the housing crisis” which is most commendable) and my understanding is that CLG is taking positive steps to further bolster planning, planners and planning processing capacity. But we will need to more, much more, hard work with local authority planners, to build confidence and to move forward decisively.

So it is a great shame that, as James Harris of the RTPI reported yesterday, the outset of 2017 will see a number of local authorities actually DELAYING their Local Plan process, while they await the publication of the Housing White Paper and assess its implications against their own evidence bases. This further delay with local plans could amount to many months in some cases. And this is truly a perverse outcome of some epic proportions. If the very first effect of a Housing White Paper designed to get things moving is to further stall them, then we could not be off to a worse start.

And I can only hope that ministers and civil servants are ahead of me here, and will move decisively to calm any jitters. They must assure local authorities that there is all the more reason to put their foot more firmly on the gas. Perhaps the LGA could move decisively into a supporting role? Certainly people must be roundly reassured that they will not be punished for attempting to comply.

Having said that, this response from local authorities is all too understandable. Local authority planners have been utterly battered over the past decade. They are a beleaguered profession, a bit like the poor teachers used to be. And they are operating in what is – in the main – a litigious and adversarial environment. This is not conducive to inculcating a confident can-do culture. A delay can be comforting. And nobody ever got sacked from a local authority for not doing anything. So it is hardly surprising that the Housing White Paper may indeed invoke a rabbit-in the-headlights response.

But I am optimistic that hands will be held, and assurances will be murmured. There is a new feeling abroad that we need our planners more than ever. We need to rebuild their professional pride, in exactly the same way as we did indeed turn around the self-image of teachers over the last decade. We need to encourage more and more young people into the planning profession. And we need to seriously upskill planning committees.

It would be a good start to bring back the old TCPA planning summer schools which were a fine series of empowering short courses for planning officers and – crucially – elected members held on university campuses during the quiet August lull (Linda Durtnal, who used to be on the school organising committee was at the NPF meeting yesterday). I can’t remember why they were axed, was it just the austerity measures? Well, it was a total false economy. The planning summer schools were informative. They were empowering. They built capacity. They were fun. Moreover they were as cheap as chips.

Just a thought.

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