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02/05/2017

How you can help shape planning policy from the ground up

Housing under construction

The RTPI is looking to create practical, realistic policies for resolving the housing shortage - and it needs your help.

How to solve the housing crisis? Typically, the focus of debate has been national government policy. Is more planning deregulation the answer? Or how about land value capture or making who owns land more transparent?
There are two problems with this.

First, as we argued in our Better Planning for Housing Affordability  paper (February 2017), much policy under successive English governments has had the wrong focus. ‘Planning reform’ was never going to resolve the housing crisis because ‘planning restrictions’ were never its cause.

As the title of the UK Government’s white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market (February 2017) suggests, we’ve overlooked the complex range of reasons why we aren’t building enough homes.

Second, we may have somewhat over-estimated the importance of policy.

"There’s hardly been a lack of policy in housing and planning. If anything, the problem has been too much policy"

Clearly, policy is important, and the RTPI has been heavily engaged in these debates. But there’s hardly been a lack of policy in housing and planning. If anything, the problem has been too much policy.

In England alone there have been at least 60 policies, initiatives and funds announced just with respect to housing under this government since May 2015.

Previous governments were prone to the same policy hyperactivity. And yet the housing crisis has worsened. Indeed, too much policy change has led to increasing complexity and costs, but not enough real help for development.

Perhaps it is time to be a bit more realistic about what policy can achieve. Central government can only set a more or less helpful framework. It can’t, typically, directly ensure local housing development itself. That’s ultimately for local councillors, planners, developers and communities.

Shouldn’t these groups be more in the lead of finding the answers to our housing crisis? Indeed, planners may already have many of the answers. What we need to do is find better ways to share these answers.

Take the issue of who builds houses. The focus on ‘planning reform’ has distracted from the fact that the continuing gap between housing supply and demand is equivalent to the housebuilding that used to be done by local authorities before the 1980s.

Looked at this way, the answer to housing crisis may not be that complex: we need local authorities to build more houses. And actually, local authorities are getting back into the housebuilding business – not because of national government policy, but more in spite of it.

"This prompts the question, what if we developed policy in a different way?"

Research commissioned by the RTPI and the National Planning Forum and conducted by UCL is looking at how local authorities are delivering housing. The results will be available later this year. (in the meantime, you can read The Planner's interview with the project's lead researcher Janice Morphet).

It’s just one example of how planners and others are working to resolve the housing crisis, rather than waiting for ‘perfect’ policies from the government.

This prompts the question, what if we developed policy in a different way?

Rather than beginning with theoretical preconceptions (for example, planning has caused the housing crisis), let’s start with what works on the ground, in local communities across the UK and Ireland, and use this as the basis for better policy.

The RTPI is ideally placed in this respect. We can draw on the expertise and experience of 24,000 members.

Let’s also ensure that this best practice and the lessons learned are shared more widely among practitioners and decision-makers. This is what we want to do through our Better Planning programme, starting with how planning can help to provide affordable housing, make city-regions more productive, and respond to climate change.

We want members to get involved – to share case studies and best practice with us, and to help shape better policy for planning and beyond. We can complain about what’s wrong with government policy, or we can do more to show what actually works on the ground and how policy could support more of it.

For this, we need your help.

Further details can be found on the RTPI website.

Dr Mike Harris is deputy head of policy and research for the RTPI.

Image | Alamy

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