Features: January 15th, 2010

By Michael Carley and Rosalind Bayley

Planning policy and new legislation are creating new development frameworks to help meet the burgeoning need for quality new housing in sustainable communities. But the reality is that delay and growing complexity continue to hinder progress. The authors describe their real life experience and call for better co-ordination between planning activities in the public and private sectors.

There is an immense need for quality new housing in sustainable communities, with the Prime Minister pledging three million new homes, some of which may be in ‘eco-towns’ adjacent to, or near, existing settlements. To this end, recent planning policy and new legislation aims to improve local development frameworks (LDFs) by emphasising faster decision-making, integration between sustainability and statutory planning, enhanced citizen participation and a strategic role for local authorities in place-making. Taken together, these policy initiatives offer an opportunity to revitalise planning and make it relevant to the effective development of urban Britain.

But many practitioners developing new communities question the ability of a planning system characterised by delay and growing complexity to deliver, despite the intentions of new legislation. A recent trend to subject many aspects of LDFs to lengthy inquiries means decisions that could be taken on a common-sense basis in a week are taking six months or more.

Given planning’s poor record in participation – with its past emphasis on professional, legal, technical and development control interests – there needs to be a steep learning curve on good ways to improve the process at all levels. This report therefore combines a review of evolving planning policy with ‘on-the-ground’ learning derived from monitoring the development process for new communities.

Evidence base for this analysis

This research began with the monitoring of the development of a new mixed-tenure neighbourhood in York, which was planned by the social landlord, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT). This was initiated to capture the learning from this development – much of that, in retrospect, turning out to be about the causes, and costs, of delays in planning. The researchers attended meetings, public and private, in connection with the York development, including some of the planning inquiry that became part of the process. In parallel, a series of seminars were held in other new communities around England, using Chatham House Rules, to debrief practitioners about their practical experiences of the planning and construction stages of development. Finally, the research team also conducted more than 40 key informant interviews with participants in the local and regional development process for Yorkshire and Humberside, and with policy-makers and planning experts active at a national level.

Planning – a culture of objection or towards consensus?

As the report documents, the planning process is overly complex and adversarial. A clearer hierarchy of national, regional and local policy, identifying what is appropriately decided at which spatial level, combined with tangible (and financial) commitment to achieving specified development objectives is needed, as opposed to strategies full of platitudes about sustainability. That clear hierachy can be achieved by using genuine participation measures at each spatial level to develop a measure of consensus about the future direction of planning policy. This will be a particular challenge in the implementation in legislation of the Sub-National Review of Economic Development and Regeneration.

Consensus in turn requires a sense of balance to be restored between the rights of the proponents of the social and economic benefits of new communities and the rights of objectors. This will arise from more confident leadership on development issues, backed up by better participation processes at both strategic and local levels, so that, rather than allowing objectors to drive debate, objections are pre-empted by dialogue and strategic decisions earlier in the planning process.

The objective is greater consensus around the need for new communities and for public investment in sustainable transport infrastructure to support those communities. The report argues that, with many of the right policies in place, the transition will be aided at the local level by linking reform of planning to the local government modernisation task – that is, to improve the organisational culture of local authorities to value partnership and citizen participation in planning.

Participation and leadership key to effective local planning

The designation of a greenfield site for housing is among the most contentious of local issues, but without such decisions the nation’s housing needs will never be met. To facilitate decision-making, two things are needed: better participation and stronger leadership by local government. Participation and leadership are two sides of the coin of effective development.

Objection to new housing will be countered only when participation processes in planning are broad-based, involving citizens from across the local authority area in consideration of key strategic issues. Participation should occur early in the process, when longer-term vision is being formulated, rather than just after the plans have been prepared. The emphasis on the importance of the core strategy in the LDF in the Planning Act 2008 is a positive step, but implies genuinely effective rather than nominal participation – that is, citizen participation that influences decisions rather than ‘rubber stamps’ them.

Strong strategic leadership ought to be a primary role of local government in its ‘place-shaping’ role. Leadership arises from a longer-term vision of what is right for the city as a whole, developed with citizen and stakeholder participation. From vision (a real need for housing) comes strategy (housing on this site and not that one) and then operational plans (such as an area action plan or a master plan).

Systematic participation and local government modernization

The report notes that a new, statutory, best value ‘duty to involve’ is intended to be a key driver for fostering community engagement across all local authority and local strategic partnership (LSP) activities. Local planning authorities are to be given ‘more flexibility to decide how and when to consult and engage’.

This, combined with a new power of well-being established in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, could begin to empower local authorities and their strategic partners to engage in more long-term, proactive strategic planning for sustainable development.

But, if local authorities and LSPs are more empowered, better community participation is also required. This means that local authorities will need better community involvement mechanisms for all aspects of service delivery, not just for planning. Rather than inventing participation for each service area – from education, to planning, to rubbish collection – they will need a systematic participation that cuts across service areas and values the time of citizens who participate.

A key conclusion is that genuine participation is most likely to be achieved as part of a comprehensive effort at local government modernisation across the board, with strong leadership from council leader and chief executive, rather than as a planning initiative per se. This suggests that planning departments themselves are unlikely to achieve positive results in institutionalising participation in the LDF unless they have the full support of the council leadership and are working with the grain of local government modernisation, which is improving and making efficient citizen participation across the range of local government services.

Planning as an inclusive learning process

The report stresses that planning is not about the production of plans but is a learning process about what works and what doesn’t in the difficult challenges of place-making. This means all participants develop new competences in contributing to place-making – not just community organisations but also professionals who learn the value of working with communities.

Participation also needs to be for everyone. For example, children in school (who are experts about their neighbourhoods) could participate in planning activities, which would inform the planning process and would influence the children’s perceptions and attitudes about local government in later life. Similarly, specialist efforts are required to connect with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, such as some black and minority ethnic groups or frail older people. It is only when participation is regular, long-standing and inclusive that it contributes to the necessary revitalisation of local democracy.

A key task for local authorities in implementing new planning policy will be to establish meaningful mechanisms for participation both at strategic, city-wide levels and for the neighbourhood, which is where most people relate to planning issues.

Integrating land use and transport

Concern about off-site traffic impact is the primary barrier to the acceptability of new communities, and this will certainly apply to eco-towns as well as urban extensions. A concerted approach led by central government, and encompassing both policy and finance, is necessary to shift journeys to sustainable transport modes. In view of the continuing growth in the number and length of journeys, local authorities can accomplish very little without sophisticated national and regional transport strategies and investment.

Even were good regional strategies to be in place, the report notes that overcentralisation of what should be local transport decision-making in England, such as on trams, inhibits innovation by reducing opportunities for experimentation and local learning in the means of delivering local sustainable development. If the intentions of policy in terms of planning reform and use of the new Community Infrastructure Levy are to be achieved, local authorities and their partners will need considerably more latitude in transport innovation.

LDF and master planning

The report concludes that there is poor co-ordination between planning activities in the public and private sectors, with master planning seen as a developer-led activity that has little relevance to formal LDF processes. This is a waste of valuable planning resources. If the LDF approach is to succeed, there needs to be better co-ordination between formal development planning, preparation of council-led development briefs and developer-led master planning. It should be made clear that issues are addressed in each and how the three levels of activity can be co-ordinated and sequenced to best advantage within the LDF.

Participatory master planning

Within the context of the LDF, therefore, there should be both broad strategies and a ‘development timeline’ showing when different sites are likely to move into a master-planning phase. City-wide policies and area-specific development briefs should be in place to provide an effective context for master planning. To reciprocate, landowners and developers should view their master-planning process not as a private or secretive activity but as an opportunity to involve key stakeholders, including planning and highways officers and local residents, in site planning. This ‘participatory master planning’ is a good mechanism for developing consensus around planning proposals.

Published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications