1. Governance
August 16, 2016

Place-making sounds woolly – but it’s the key to fixing a divided Britain

By Michael Harris

The Royal Town Planning Institute on why we need more, well, planning.

The Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. A recent survey revealed that Leave voters were more likely to live in areas with very low levels of migration, indicating that locals were experiencing other, much deeper-seated social and economic difficulties.

Could the referendum result in fact be the outcome of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? We’d argue that it’s so.

Lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly. But our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people’s health, happiness, and well being has produced results that are far from abstract: poverty, inequality, disease and disillusionment.

So why have we lost the ability to make places?

In large part it’s because we’ve pushed planning into a smaller and smaller box, the result of a desire – to quote the former prime minister – to “[get] the planners off our backs”.

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Ground down by almost continual changes to planning policy and regulations, severely underfunded and under-supported, relentlessly characterised as the problem’, some planners have inevitably become what they have been caricatured as: followers of process, rather than purposeful public servants.

In a new report publised today, the Royal Town Planning Institute finds that in England in particular, these changes are producing a planning system that is more complicated and more uncertain. It’s a system that produces 
less decision making, consultation and accountability; a reduced ability to ensure that development is well planned and connected; and a narrower range of affordable housing to rent or buy (irrespective of local need) – all without addressing the significant under-resourcing of local planning authorities.

Not only are these changes not solving the housing crisis: they are having the detrimental effect of creating disjointed communities, poorly served by transport and other facilities with no easy access to jobs and economic opportunities. 

This does not have to be the case. In some developments – Norwich, Birmingham and Northampton local planners are performing a leading and strategic role in making places work, striking creative partnerships with developers, designers and architects.

But we need many more of them.

Some commentators bemoan that local authorities already have the powers they need to promote more and better development, and that they are largely to blame for the housing crisis. This ignores that 30 years of deregulatory planning changes have undeniably stripped local authorities of their powers to plan.

Such commentators also compare the UK unfavourably with some continental European countries. They rarely realise that European local authorities often take the leading role in acquiring and assembling sites and making them viable for development — including through developing sites themselves.

There is now an emerging consensus that councils should again build and own homes themselves, in the belated recognition that private development won’t meet demand. This makes place-making through sensitive high-quality design, master-planning and regeneration an even more urgent and important core local competence.

Moreover, now is the time where more active local authorities could inject confidence and certainty into a nervous private development market. This means using local authorities’ combined local planning, economic development and devolved powers to guide private sector investment and keep up the momentum for building.

We’ll see over the next few months whether Theresa May’s government adopts a broader approach to resolving the housing crisis, more akin to the one proposed by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s recent report.

If it does, public sector-led place-making needs to be at its centre, and act as the foundation stone of a truly one nation housing policy. And for planners to take centre stage to lead and operate strategically, they should be properly supported and valued.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy director of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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