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03/12/2020

Whose town is it anyway? 10 thoughts prompted by the planning white paper

The planning white paper shows that the government needs to steer the planning system towards the public interest, and not private interests, argues Tony Michael

1. If "the planning system is broken” as the prime minister said recently, then we should remind him that it is successive governments that have broken it with amateurish tinkering.

2. We must remember that the planning system was created to protect the public; not to validate developers’ proposals, but to ensure their compatibility with the public interest.

3. It follows that the principal ‘client’ of the planning system is not the developer, it is the public. Whose town is it anyway?

4. Taking advice on how to change the planning system from developers is naive. They give advice to govern-ment that is in their interests, not those of the public.

5. The planning of towns is not in developers' skill sets. They get approvals (often setting the minimum standards they can get away with), then build, sell the finished building to a pension fund, and disappear. We need their innovative ideas to push things along, but they should have no part in deciding how their proposals are to be judged by the public.

6. Anyone with experience of a zoning system will tell you that it is cumbersome and complex to set up, inflexible, legalistic and highly determinist. Is this a good fit for the British character, which feels happiest when there is room for interpretation?

7. If government wants to improve the planning system, why not ask the public (the principal client) and the profession, which knows how the system works?

"Anyone with experience of a zoning system will tell you that it is cumbersome and complex to set up and highly determinist"

8. Scrapping so-called viability statements (which few believe), the absurd section 79 building in green belt, the hundreds of pages of useless bumf that accompanies applications, setting clear building form constraints, defining neighbourliness protection and land use compatibility, dealing with housing targets and land value capture, bringing the public in to discussions on day one between developer and planner; these would be some of the starting points, as would going beyond the narrow confines of development control to initiating improvements and running the climate emergency programme of works. And leave architecture to architects.

9. Everyone needs to be clear that ‘the planners’ are the professionals who serve the public (via their council), and it is councils who are responsible for every decision, not planners.

10. Finally, shouldn’t government announcements on planning, come from the planning minister, not someone from one of the bit players like housing?

Tony Michael MRTPI is a town planner and architect 

Image credit | Shutterstock

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