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07/08/2020

Planning for the Future: There is a missing link between people and housing need

Affordable homes / Shutterstock: 516642517

The role of digital engagement takes centre stage in the Planning For The Future white paper on planning reform. That’s great news for the future of England’s built environment, says Paul Erskine-Fox, but could the same tools help us understand housing needs?

All of a sudden, we’re slap bang in the age of digital engagement in planning. Covid-19 has expedited the process of getting there and organisations across the public and private sectors have had to adapt to social distancing and take their engagement online, quickly. 

They’ve been good at it, too. The level of response to quick-fire consultations about social distancing measures have shown that digital tools have the power to engage a lot of people, of all age groups and life circumstances, in a large geographic area, in a very short space of time, with very little notice. 

The planning system is used to asking questions like ‘What would you like to change about this place?’, ‘What do you think of our plans?’ and ‘What are your aspirations for the future of your neighbourhood?’. But what if we took it one step further and asked people questions like ‘How many bedrooms do you need?’, ‘Do you want a garden?’ and ‘Do you need a car parking space?’. 

It occurred to me when reading the white paper that we’re still trying to decide on a standard method for calculating housing needs – but I’m not sure we can ever truly understand demand until we’ve done some ‘consumer research’ and actually asked people what they want. 

“What if we took it one step further and asked people questions like ‘How many bedrooms do you need?’, ‘Do you want a garden?’”

Household formation rates only go so far, because they simply give us a picture of what people are likely to do based on what they have been doing (an extrapolation of current trends), rather than what they could do if they had different choices.

The white paper talks at length about the "standard method", but fails to make a link between better engagement and a better understanding of market demand for homes. What’s more, having a magic number of homes that local authorities need to plan for doesn’t take account of the kind of homes that people need or want, leading to situations where councils are forced to consent housing of the wrong type in the wrong places to get closer to their housing number for the plan period.

“Having a magic number of homes that local authorities need to plan for doesn’t take account of the kind of homes that people need or want”

The importance of 'data' is rightly championed as a way to make better planning decisions, but the thoughts of those in need of housing still don't form part of data sets used to understand housing demand. 

"It [the planning system] simply does not lead to enough homes being built, especially in those places where the need for new homes is the highest." So why not give those in need of a home a voice in the housing need debate? We can then make better decisions about what kind of homes are needed and where.

Paul Erskine-Fox is founder of digital engagement platform Participatr

Photo l Shutterstock

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