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Homes are where the hearts are: How planning can regain the public’s trust

Homes / iStock-613765260

Planning should be at the heart of rebuilding the economy, rebalancing the country and building the homes we need, says Robin Shepherd. But first it needs to earn back public trust. How?

We are in the midst of both a pandemic and a national housing crisis – but only one of these has been going on for decades. Despite many strong efforts and good intentions, we have routinely failed to deliver either the quantity or quality of homes that the nation needs. We must not let the post-Covid slump distract us from the pressing need to build more homes.  

The key to unlocking new homes is therefore in earning the public’s trust – which must be the foundation of any planning reform in the imminent planning white paper. Such reform has four elements.

No plan is an island

We need to drive a national conversation to dig deep into the kind of society we want to be, and the important role of planning in achieving it. We then task the planning system to deliver this in a transparent way, communicating effectively with the public at large about the steps to get us there. With national support, this open conversation, multiple times at multiple levels, led by councillors and community leaders, can identify how the country and each community contribute to these common objectives. This must be a positive debate that ensures everyone delivers on the promises made. 

Building back healthier

Covid-19 has put the spotlight back on the vital role that planning has in improving living conditions and importantly the health and wellbeing of everyone in society.  Better collaboration with health professionals is essential if we are to build back healthier. We need to understand the true value of our green spaces and parks, and tools such as Greenkeeper – developed to measure the health benefits green infrastructure delivers – can only be developed through genuine collaboration. 

“We need to drive a national conversation to dig deep into the kind of society we want to be”

Government must support the co-creation of places with health experts, alongside the usual collaborators, to ensure that we build back healthier, tackle inequality and can enter a new golden age for the public realm. Councils in turn must play a far more active role in the creation of place, not simply relying on developers, but developing themselves, planning and creating parks and key spaces, supporting new communities – even taking a commercial interest in the places that are planned. 

National strategic planning for levelling-up

The government has already committed politically to re-balancing the country, and planning lies at the heart of this. We need to broaden the geography of demand for housing and the benefits to communities that come with it and for this we need the government to lead by example. 

“Councils in turn must play a far more active role in the creation of place, not simply relying on developers, but developing themselves”

A national plan can emerge from the national conversation and supported by the need to enhance health for all, improve the ambition, co-ordination, and interaction between local plans. Local and neighbourhood planning plays a key role in responding to local need, creating and managing change, a national plan must set ambition and help to reduce uncertainty, bureaucracy and delay.  

Simplifying CIL

There is currently not enough transparency when it comes to the CIL regime and how receipts are spent. This engenders distrust and is a missed opportunity for development to be recognised as an enabler of positive change. It is essential that we strip back bureaucracy, and the proposals to introduce a system to capture the land value uplift arising from development simply represents another tax.

Development needs to pay its fair share, but the government needs to be clear on which route they wish to pursue and not simply burden planning with further taxes. 

Planning for a better society

The upcoming white paper and the context of the Covid-19 recovery provides the government with a unique opportunity to reset and reform the planning process. If the Prime Minister is keen to stand by his words on the importance of ‘society’ and building our way to recovery, then he must first set his sites on planning as the gateway to housing and development that both delivers for Britain and is trusted by its people.

Robin Shepherd is a partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore. These recommendations feature in more detail in a recent essay collection by Localis: Building for renewal: kickstarting the C19 housing recovery

Image credit l iStock


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