The value of matrimony

“Political change can itself introduce barriers in the operation of the planning system,” said the Royal Town Planning Institute’s latest State of the Profession report. Who knew?

Local authority planners and politicians have had a long and turbulent marriage ever since the 1947 Act took them to an austerity registry office wedding. Now, after three-quarters of a century of bickering, it might be time to settle their differences and realise that local political involvement in planning is to the benefit and legitimacy of both.

Labour used to cite the planning system as one of the Party’s finest achievements, so it’s depressing to see shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves identify it as an obstacle to the nation’s future. Yet she’s happy to laud financial services, despite that sector’s role in regular destabilisation of the nation’s economy, as well as undermining the last Labour government.

Climate change is already delivering increased storminess, yet national politicians seem grimly determined to ignore it and instead blow destructive gales through planning, which could and should be expanded into a central role in our response to it.

At the eye of this gathering storm is, of course, the Royal Town Planning Institute, representing as it does the nation’s professional planners. A good time, you might think, for it to stand up for the planning system, the benefits it has long given the country and the wider role it could play in the uncertain future we all face.

One can agree, at least in principle, with the Institute’s latest State of the Profession report which said: “Political change can itself introduce barriers in the operation of the planning system”.  It’s all too clear that, through 20 years of the Treasury’s undead hand repeatedly throttling English planning (and influencing the devolved administrations), Whitehall, with ministerial backing, has done serious damage to what ought to be central to our response to coming dangers.

Yet many influential planners have always been a bit equivocal about the role the 1947 Act gave to communities’ elected representatives in the system.

Chartered planners will have spent three years obtaining a planning degree, then a further period gaining professional experience as a licentiate, so perhaps the local government principle that “officers advise, members decide” might seem a bit unreasonable. Except that it’s not.

For three-quarters of a century councillor involvement has been the rock on which legitimacy and acceptance of the planning system has been based. Planners need to remember this.

The alternative is commercial interests having the final say, something Whitehall has increasingly been trying to force on the system. And guess what? It’s generated endless rows over planning, undermining the value of professionals’ advice, the legitimacy of elected members, the content of local plans, development control decisions and the acceptability of development.

So it was a surprise to see in a blog by RTPI senior public affairs officer Joel Cohen about election year, in which he noted the lack of clarity and certainty resulting from recent ministerial policies despite the profession’s complaints, that he also bemoaned “growing politicisation of our planning system and of planning decisions at local level”.

This, he contends, is becoming a barrier to plan making. But that’s only so in the Alice in Wonderland world of Whitehall planning policy. The erosion of members’ ability to influence what has become a hugely burdensome and commercially driven process is the problem, not the fact they’re elected politicians. The post-2012 process has left local plans looking like a way for developers, backed by Whitehall, to cherry-pick what they want, whether it’s useful or destructive.

“Our grassroots It Takes Planners campaign has demonstrated how important the profession is to deciding where homes, roads, offices and shops – the stuff of local politics – are built, and provides our sector with a way to call out the abuse of planners and misinformation when we see it,” writes Mr Cohen.

Amen to that – though it really shouldn’t seem a cheap shot to point out that planning should also decide where homes, offices and shops aren’t built and that planning should usually be against solutions necessitating major roads. But the wording of Mr Cohen’s blog and the RTPI’s cautious stance is still indicative of the state of a system which has diverged dangerously from officers advising and members deciding.

Today the process often looks more like:-

  • Developers demand what and where they want to build and how much money they need to make from it.
  • Under-resourced planning departments struggle to craft hugely complex local plans and development recommendations
  • Members struggle to reconcile national rules, officers’ advice, their own political beliefs or ideology and the views of their increasingly frustrated and marginalised communities.
  • Developers moan they haven’t got what they want.
  • Whitehall intervenes on their behalf.

Developers may say this is unfair, but that’s usually because they’ve become rather used to the whip-hand, with backing from ministers.

And the planning profession itself has changed over the years, from one where most planners worked in local government to one where very many now earn their corn in the private sector advising clients – at best how to navigate the system and at worst how to game it. Local authority planners, over-worked and underpaid, must sometimes wonder whether it’s all worth it.

That’s why they need strong backing from the RTPI, both against the interests of developers, even if that’s where many planners work, and against the increasingly dangerous neoliberal instincts of Whitehall and those who aspire to ministerial rank.

“Throughout this year, planners can continue to rely on the RTPI to do more than just rebut campaign debating points,” says Mr Cohen. “We’ll be working publicly to make the case for robust, well-resourced and capable planning services.”

That’s good to hear, but there are gathering storms aplenty in the near future: climate change, food and water security, an enfeebled economy, housing need (as opposed to “demand”), regional imbalance, drainage, flooding and sea defence, security etc.. These are all things the profession should be playing a central role in but, to a dangerous extent, it isn’t.

Action in harmony on all these issues is necessary and planning is the only profession that could bring the wisdom of geography to bear against the destructive power of neoliberal economics. A craven surrender to the demands of national politicians and short-term commercial demands is what the profession must avoid.

Jon Reeds