Collectively and politically, our attitude towards planning and development seems to ride a perpetual roller coaster. Every decade or so, we rise towards a summit of indignation about the dire effects our inept and slothful planning system is having on desperately needed housing development and job-creating businesses. Planners are instructed to stop interfering. After a brief period on the peak, though, influential people start to realise that things they value, like countryside, open spaces, playing fields – and their neighbours’ gardens – are being consumed much more ravenously than they like and so we plummet towards a realisation that the planning system we used to have perhaps wasn’t doing as bad a job as we thought. Planning gains support and strength again for a while, but soon enough dissatisfaction and indignation start to rise again.
Just look back to the 80s and 90s. Which Labour Secretary of State sowed the seeds of the current planning system so despised by current Conservative Secretary of State Eric Pickles? Well, actually it was Conservative Secretary of State John Gummer – reacting to outcries from the leafy suburbs about garden grabbing and lost playing fields, following laissez-faire policy directions pursued vigorously by his Conservative anti-planning predecessor Nicholas Ridley. So, it wasn’t Labour that invented the “plan-led” system that Mr Pickles seems to despise so much (despite still paying lip service to it in a moderated form), it was a Conservative reaction to a Conservative supporters’ reaction to a Conservative weakening of planning controls!
The big problem with Labour ‘s approach in then taking the inherited planning agenda forward was that it placed too much emphasis on systems and spurious (ultimately counter-productive) performance targets and too little on achieving good development on the ground –rather than on long-winded plans that never see the light of day because they get stuck in labyrinthine processes. At the same time, the emphasis on time-measured performance in dealing with planning applications meant that it often took longer to get permission for schemes that were basically acceptable but needed some adjustment, because refusing within the time period allowed the performance indicator box to be ticked but negotiating a bit longer and granting a permission “late” meant a black mark for the planners.
The failures of our planning system are, in reality, less to do with having too much or too little planning and much more to do with simply failing to embrace planning as a positive force for beneficial change – a creative activity far more than an administrative one. Collectively, we fall back on using planning as a way of stopping the things we don’t like other people doing, much more than supporting it as a means of promoting the sort of development we need in the places where we need it.
Mr Pickles and colleagues will argue, of course, that it is precisely that promotional role that they are trying to bring to the fore. The problem is that they are doing so by misunderstanding the role of planning, denigrating its value and weakening its influence. Rather than a planning system that just likes to say “yes” without thinking, we need one that properly understands what is needed and how it can be delivered – and, crucially, this involves properly understanding the way developers need to work – and puts its efforts in to promoting that development in places and ways that produce the greatest benefits and the least harm: not easy, but well worth the effort.