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Democracy – a daring concept but should we give up on it?

Homeless Illustration Zara Picken

We may need to tweak - or even overhaul - our local decision-making system if we are to solve the housing shortage and get the sensible, well-planned development the nation needs, argues Louise-Brooke Smith

“Democracy is a daring concept – a hope that we’ll be best governed if all of us participate in the act of government. It is meant to be a conversation, a place where the intelligence and local knowledge of the electorate sums together to arrive at actions that reflect the participation of the largest possible number of people.”

So said Brian Eno, the celebrated musician, producer and songwriter, but perhaps not the first person anyone thinks of when considering the planning system. While his view of democracy was admirable – is it still realistic when applied to the development arena?

I am aware that to challenge this basic tenet of the British uncodified constitution could be deemed seditious, but last time I looked we weren’t a Middle Eastern state or ruled by a Russian oligarch.

Anyone who has had any involvement with our land use regime will be aware that while the approach has remained fairly stable, the systems, regulations and policy context have been the subject of well-meaning but inevitably frustrating variation over the years.

The basis of decision-making, in theory, comprises the sensitive act of encouraging enterprise through the use and development of land and property, and balancing this with the protection of our environment; it’s a principle taught to all planning students.

But when the pressure for something as fundamental as a roof over people’s heads reaches breaking point, perhaps we need to review that principle.

“The needs of the majority are squashed by the intransigence and dogma of the few”

The value of public participation, the gentle art of debate by a balanced quota of elected members sitting on a planning committee and the measured role of a chairperson helping to ensure that the right decisions are made and those homes are built, can be a struggle.

Indeed, in some parts of the country that sweet theoretical Ladybird book of our youth, ‘How the Town and Country is Planned’ with idyllic watercolour illustrations, should perhaps today be a trilogy of From Here to Eternity, Battle Royale and Nightmare on Elm Street, with graphics from their respective screenplays. Now decisions struggle to get through a political dogfight in which the needs of the majority are squashed by the intransigence and dogma of the few.

No wonder a more strategic approach is being seen as a potential solution to balance the apple-pie-and-motherhood call for democracy with the pragmatic need to support more housing. Should a fundamental need to create homes really be at the whim of a local pressure group or, heaven forbid, elected members who, in some cases, have little if any training or understanding of the planning process and who, notwithstanding their political platforms, fail to grasp that their professional officers have spent time and energy to present them with clear and balanced recommendations?

Examples of members overruling those recommendations are repeated week in, week out, across the country. And many proposals return to the drawing board at a great loss of cost, time, energy and enthusiasm, or face the uncertainty of the appeal system. So should we be bold and accept that sometimes democracy does more harm than good?

Perhaps an approach that supports intelligent debate and rational comment on important principles and then sets realistic parameters for development at a local level would be a better way forward. What could possibly go wrong – other than perhaps a few more homes are built, fewer sofa-surfers bounce around their neighbourhood and fewer people sleep on our streets?

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK Head of Development and Strategy Planning


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