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Read the Raynsford Review and ignore the whims of the talking heads

Sword and shield

The Raynsford Review of Planning is the first comprehensive look at the whole English planning system for decades and deserves to be taken seriously, says Chris Shepley

There are people who read these columns. Sometimes to meet (and often exceed) their CPD obligations, sometimes for the consummate and comprehensive dismemberment of government policy that they contain – and sometimes even for pleasure.  

My fans overlook my bewilderment regarding the current planning scene. I feel, like Alan Bennett, that writing about planning today “is like crossing a patch of swampy ground, jumping from one tussock to another, trying not to get my feet wet”.  

Maybe this explains the puzzlement that my fans feel over the fact that government policy has not, in response to this forensic monthly roasting, assumed a more sensible trajectory. From insane trivia like the policy to make it easier to convert launderettes to swimming pools, to profound issues such as the rise in homelessness, the inadequacy of current housing policies, or the unrecognised (in Westminster) implications of regional imbalance, I have sought to help ministers find a better course. This succour has been eschewed.

So, after eight long years, how bad are things now? I write this in anticipation of the final report of the Raynsford Review (I’m on the review team) later this month. After the interim report, there were those who questioned the notion that planning was in a bad way (we didn’t actually say it was ‘broken’, but that word was bandied around). People worried, understandably, that advocating further reform might play into the hands of those who wanted further to erode the system. And felt – also understandably – that still more change, after the unbounded adjustments of recent years, was more than anybody could cope with.

Still planners, heroically and against the odds, keep the system going. I don’t think their efforts to do so can be sufficiently praised. The cracks may be showing. A telephone call to a planning office may yield little other than the fading echo of long-departed planners, and the recorded voice of a young graduate lost in an ocean of targets and controversies. But nonetheless decisions get made, and reasonably quickly, and planners still make the world a much better place than it would be without them.

“Too often we are licensees for developers rather than creators of better places”

But yet. Planning is surely in a poorer state than it has been since 1947. Too often we are licensees for developers rather than creators of better places. We are holding things together well enough, but imaginative visions for the future of our country, or our towns and cities, are conspicuous often only by their absence.

Extensions to permitted development have produced apartments with the size and character of filing cabinets, and children now play among the lorries on industrial estates. New wheezes such as prior approval and permission in principle have helped to render the system incomprehensible to most of the population, without doing anything to help with the problems the nation faces. Time pressures mean that serious consideration of things as diverse as good design or climate change falls by the wayside Public participation is becoming a lost art.  

This column thinks we should fight back. It thinks that we can cope with more change so long as it is change based on evidence, knowledge and experience rather than on the whim of some think-tanker equipped only with the back of an envelope. It thinks that you, the planner, have the skills and enthusiasm to do much better things than you are able to do now; that your potential needs to be released.

So read the Raynsford report (and engage with the forthcoming Labour Party consultation on planning, which is also employing such expertise as this column may have). Raynsford is the first comprehensive look at the whole of the system for decades. It deserves to be taken seriously.

The rRyaChris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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