We live in a time when there is an acute shortage of housing. Combined with an unstoppable population increase and an infrastructure that is crumbling and out of date, the situation is getting worse. Something needs to change and it needs to change dramatically. And that change should happen in the planning departments across the country.
Planning is largely reactive. Planners respond to applications made by others. They sit in judgement of the plans and aspirations of others, increasingly hemmed in by the conflicting desires of those who see planning as a preservation society and those who seek to push forward into a new era of development and expansion.
Whatever decisions they make, they seem to be in the wrong. If they decide in favour of an applicant, they annoy the objectors. If they decide against, they are faced with an aggrieved applicant and, lately, a government frustrated that its housing targets can’t be met.
But how about turning all that on its head? How about making ‘planning’ the engine for development? How about empowering and requiring planning authorities to actively seek out and identify development opportunities in their area?
What if they were required to identify potential development sites and proactively promote their development by encouraging existing owners to seek consent for a particular use — or, in some cases, by moving to unilaterally grant a specific consent? Or even by using some new instrument, which formally required a use or class of development on a parcel or area of identified land — a bit like a stronger version of the current zoning system.
There’d be howls that planners would be seeking to take away land from unwilling owners and, indeed, in certain cases, there might be a justification for compulsory purchase powers on land that was, say, unused or neglected. In most cases, the financial windfall created by the simple act of granting such a consent or development class designation would result in its early or eventual uptake.
Any disputed consents, orders or compulsory purchase orders could be balanced by committees of elected members. These committees could be granted powers to decide disputed cases with a mandate to balance the rights, and wishes, of the beneficial owners with the common good. And none of this needs to conflict with the traditional role of the planners in deciding and arbitrating on applications made by others.
Redefining the Role of the Planners
Planners have been seeking a role for some time. For the first five decades of their existence they largely fell into the camp of the preservationists. For the last few decades they have been the reluctant accomplices to various governments’ requirements for development, often in the face of public opposition.
They have sought to expand their role through the adoption of causes such as the (now defunct) Code for Sustainable Homes, alongside various wildlife and archaeological regs — almost like a besieged entity trying to protect itself with satellite or forward bases from they often have to retreat.
Planning magazine is full of the laments of planners who question their role and their worth to the society that hires them. Objections to the government’s House and Planning Act 2016 revolved around the issue of possible ‘loss of control’ in the face of a perceived centralisation of the national government’s powers. Once again, planners are fearful that their role will be diminished or even extinguished. Disillusionment and staff shortages are rife in most planning departments.
These proposals, outlined above, would give them a new, expanded, and largely proactive role, and actually fulfil their name as ‘planners’, allowing them to plan the future direction, development and nature of the nation. We are part way towards the concept of proactive planning with Right to Build legislation, which requires local authorities to compile a register of would-be self-builders in their area and, having done so, identify land or opportunities to satisfy that demand within a set timescale.
What I am suggesting is simply an expansion of that role into the mainstream. After all, who better to do this than these trained professionals, backed by the facilities that local authorities can provide?