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01/11/2013

Planning for Growth is on life support – what will resuscitate it?

The first item on the agenda at the Royal Town Planning Institute Young Planners’ Conference may have been ominous but spirits were high.

“Autopsy of Planning for Growth suggests that I need to undertake a post-mortem and that implies that Planning for Growth is dead – which it is not,” said Bob May, Turley Associates director. “If Nick Boles were here today I’d expect him to say that Planning for Growth was working, it’s just starting to happen and it’s a bold set of measures.” 
 
Mercy is not an option, May stressed. “If Planning for Growth is not dead, then it is being starved of oxygen. We need to look at the causes of failure and we can’t defend the indefensible.”
 
The best way to tackle problem areas, from planning restrictions (“I had a case on my desk which had 89 conditions attached to it) to out-of-date local plans that mean local authorities fall short of five-year supply (“there is not one region where the five-year supply can be met,”) was to take controversial action, he said. 
 
Place local authorities into special measures for taking too long to determine major applications, allow developers a bypass to go straight to the secretary of state, resist political obstinacy and ignore meaningless ‘grandstanding’ and ‘playing’ to the gallery in the name of localism, he insisted.  
 
The “most mobile people in the profession” –  young planners – were told not to tolerate outdated systems. “At university I was only one of two people who chose regional planning,” May said. “You chose to be here, to put yourself in massive personal debt, to study for five years. If you’re not happy where you are, then move.”
 
RTPI chief executive Trudi Elliot said a national leader with an “acute” sense of “what and at what level” would act as a clear reference point for young planners. “We faff around. The national government needs to be clearer about its national priority. Is it transport, education, housing, what is it? You need an effective housing minister with clout, with some tenacity because these are long-term issues. I just despair.”
 
Councillors don’t have a strategic vision either, said Andrew Whitaker, planning director of the House Builders Federation. “It’s up to leaders to show that vision. Councillors don’t seem to have changed in terms of the way that they bring schemes forward for development. I don’t think you can do growth from the bottom up.”
 

"The national government needs to be clearer about its national priority. Is it transport, education, housing - what is it?"

 
Pressure is being placed in the wrong places, he said. “One thing we’re always focused on is the numbers – we’re totally obsessed. There is no silver bullet.”
 
The conference was shot through with the consensus that planning is not the panacea to housing’s sickness, a feeling voiced by Elliot: “A lot of the planning reforms, particularly in England, have been driven by the perception in some quarters that part of the failure to deliver the housing need is in the planning system – I’m not sure I agree with that. Actually it’s a much wider issue, planning’s but one element of it,” she said. 
 
“It’s never just the planning. Unless the Treasury gets behind it and frees up some of the financial tools and Defra gets behind it to make sure we have water in the right places for houses and unless the Department for Transport gets behind it, however are we going to do it?” the RTPI chief executive asked in a tone of despair.
 
When it later came to the business of unlocking growth, British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace went as far as demoting planning to the status of  “servant” to real estate. Planning alone will not break the economy’s “vicious cycle,” she said, calling for reduced development costs, greater use of planning performance agreements and increased borrowing power for councils to generate demand. Satnam Choongh of No5 Chambers added to Peace’s shopping list and highlighted the inherent “tensions” stalling development. The current process is democratic, technocratic and judicial, he said. 
 
It’s all very bitty, complained Peace. “How does planning actually help growth? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s not planning per se that’s going to make growth happen. It’s not the be all and end all; I hope that doesn’t disappoint you.”
 
It only increases the attraction to the industry, said a delegate from Brown & Co property business consultants, as we had another cup of tea in a room straining with avid twenty-somethings. After all, said Elliot, “it is not about your age, but about your skill sets and ability to make a difference.” 

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