What we really really want

John Baker
| Point Consultancy Ltd
6th August 2020

How many times have governments vowed to sweep away bureaucracy and confusion and make the planning system ‘simpler and swifter’? 

Slightly more times than the number of governments is the answer.  And how many times have all political parties claimed they will see 300,000 house built a year, even though that number has never been achieved without a third being social housing, and is a number way above what it would ever suit the housing industry to bring to market.  

Yet here we are again, with Johnson and Jenrick making big claims for their proposed planning reforms. But a handful of people extending their property upwards by two storeys without the need for planning permission will not add to the stock nor sort the housing crisis (though it will upset the neighbours and waste the time of the local planning officer dealing with complaints).   For all other ‘quick fixes’ to make it easier to get planning permission, and with or without relaxing local democratic accountability, environmental protection, and the provision of affordable housing, we should remember that for humanity all that will matter in the end are biodiversity and the global climate.

Good planning comes not from changing the planning system, but from the innovative use of whatever system we have in order to get the job done.  We need true strategic thinking; we need better quality and probably fewer planners, focused on the important issues; we need intelligent effective development plans to be put in place on a timely basis for functional areas making positive provision for development; and we need bolder leadership from elected members concerned only for the common good.  

And we really need to be rid of the truly archaic and stupid green belt policy so that we can make evidence-based decisions and promote more sustainable patterns of development.  

If we had all of this we would still need greater capacity – the product of people and skills – in the construction industry.  Or perhaps a radically different way of creating houses, provided the quality standards are greater.  Home-building by home-working.

Somebody once said to me in a public meeting, ‘we don’t go to the pub and talk about the local plan you know’.  Indeed and understood, but what people do talk about are issues that planning is supposed to deal with – or that have been created by not-good-enough planning.  Better debate on these issues at all levels including through the media could be a big help.  The common media’s focus on those who feel put out doesn’t do the job and sloganising by politicians certainly doesn’t help.  

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