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01/02/2014

Blog: It’s time to act

Words:

Looking for something a bit easier to follow than the government’s planning policy, I chanced upon Wikipedia’s analysis of space and time.

It begins, abbreviatedly: "Philosophy of space and time is the branch of philosophy concerned with the issues surrounding the ontology, epistemology, and character of space and time. The subject focuses on a number of basic issues, including whether or not time and space exist independently of the mind, and what accounts for 
time’s apparently unidirectional flow."
 
I don’t know if Under Secretary of State for Planning Nick Boles studied this at Winchester or Magdalen. He certainly has an interest in time, being obsessed with saving it; but he seems able to cope only with small quantities of it. Thirteen weeks is an eternity. But space seems to be an altogether less pressing concern.
 
All this gives us a problem because planning is quintessentially about space. Because Mr Boles is (kind of) in charge of us, and recently said he was now “much more a supporter of the planning system”, this matters. (Though it is surely significant, and revealing, that he said he was a supporter of the planning system, rather than of planning itself). 
 
And planning is clearly about time – lots of it. Decisions taken now bear fruit years later. If we were to have garden cities, for example – and politicos are leaping on the TCPA’s determined bandwagon – then with the best will in the world, a strong following wind, and an unlikely outburst of local support, nothing would rise from the ground for many years.  
 
So if, as he argues and most people agree, we need to build  maybe a quarter of a million houses a year, we will need policies that address where they will go (space) and how and when they can be delivered (time). And face squarely up to the fact that we haven’t built 250,000 houses in a year for more than three decades – not since the demise of council housing.
 

"Planning is clearly about time - lots of it. Decisions taken now bear fruit years later"

 
We get off to a bad start. The housing pipeline was broken in 2010 when regional strategies were abolished without an adequate replacement. This led to a three-year hiatus while everyone wondered what to do next, their abject confusion apparently rendered less critical because of the recession. Planning, whether it exists “independently of the mind” or not, is a continuum; things have to be rolled forward constantly.
 
This is a vital, fundamental truth little appreciated in think tank circles; but the 2010 discontinuity is going to cause problems soon, which should be laid at the door of the government rather than us.
 
So we have ground to make up in the short term. Then, beyond the Boles horizon, the housing we need won’t happen by magic; it needs a bit of thought and some bravery. Allowing a few changes of use from offices to noisy apartments, or even encouraging more self-build, will not cut it. There is plenty of 1980s history (read about Foxley Wood and Stone Bassett) that demonstrates beyond peradventure that the exquisitely unsophisticated idea of  just by-passing the planning process will do no more than put people’s backs up.
 
So stop worrying about the system and start worrying about planning, minister. Do some. Or get someone else to do it if it’s too hard. Think a long way ahead (time), look at options (space), consult, explain, decide, act. It can be thrilling, though it won’t be popular. But then you are the minister for planning so you’re bound to be unpopular, like the rest of us, if you do it properly.
 
What is most important, surely, is to see everyone with a decent and affordable roof over their heads. Not thinking about whether prior approval should be given for a few people to live miles from anywhere in a barn. 
That is a pathetically inadequate response. 
 
Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector
 

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