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Is planning gain the new brown envelope?

Brown envelope with money

Planning gain is too readily used as a lobbying tool which undermines the transparency of decision-making, say award-winning researchers Dr Linda Fox-Rogers and Dr Enda Murphy

How the planning system can deliver upon shortfalls in local and national infrastructure (housing, public transport, community services) that are impacting negatively on the quality of life of many citizens continues to lie at the heart of core planning debates.

The pent-up demand for core infrastructure has been aggravated by a sorry series of post-crash austerity measures that have decimated government capital expenditure programmes.

Planning gain agreements, which tap into windfall profits that accrue to developers on the foot of favourable planning decisions (i.e. betterment) have been heralded as a key way in which these challenges can be met.

"The pent-up demand for core infrastructure has been aggravated by a sorry series of post-crash austerity measures"

Not only do the gains compensate for the impacts of a particular scheme (the argument goes), they also have a moral dimension as a share of the developer’s profits is redistributed to the community.

Although planning gain may originally have been a well-intentioned alternative to ‘top-down’ value capture arrangements (e.g. betterment tax), and it has undoubtedly delivered a wide range of benefits to areas in desperate need of investment, our research leads us to scepticism about how these agreements are playing out in practice. Our interviews with community groups, councillors, developers and planning officials in the Dublin region show planning gain agreements are being redeployed as a lobbying tool to exert influence over councillors in more subtle ways than were previously possible.

The process essentially involves developers seeking political support by offering ‘sweeteners’ (school site, playing pitch) as part of a proposal; councillors then tend to exaggerate the level of effort involved in developer-councillor negotiations to gain kudos from constituents to secure re-election.

The reality is that the talks are rarely as laborious as claimed. And the gains offered tend to be crumbs off the table, but are nevertheless welcomed by communities.

More worrying is that such agreements have made it harder to assess councillor motives because decisions can be justified on the basis that they were merely trying to secure facilities for constituents.

As one stakeholder said, community gain is “the new brown envelope”. Practitioners, academics and the public must play a part in scrutinising how these agreements are negotiated to unearth the power dynamics at play.

Dr Linda Fox-Rogers of Queen’s University Belfast, and Dr Enda Murphy, of University College Dublin, won the RTPI 2016 Early Career Research award

Read Linda and Enda’s paper ‘From brown envelopes to community benefits: The co-option of planning gain agreements under deepening neoliberalism’ on the ScienceDirect website

Photo | iStock


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