Localism and other fairytales

The forthcoming Localism Bill is being speculated upon left right and centre. If the delays in publishing it are a cynical drive by the coalition to divert attention away from a myriad other hot political potatoes then it is almost working. The proposals will have far reaching influences upon the way local decision making will take place in our local areas, our interface with local authorities and require a level of community cohesion, joint mindedness and a commitment to working for the common good……no wonder debate is raging.

However, way back in 2001 when New Labour published its “Strong Local Leadership, Quality Local Services” it spelled out that “By removing restrictions and requirements on planning, spending and decision-making and providing new powers to trade and charge, we will free up councils to innovate and deliver tangible improvements in the quality of services and effective community leadership.”
Sound familiar? It’s not the first time policy has been recycled, repackaged and resold?

Many are seeing the proposed relaxation of planning permission and increase in local decision-making as a traditional Tory assault on the planning profession reminiscent of the “jobs locked up in filing cabinets” sentiment of the Thatcher days. A further trip down memory lane would elicit such gems as “been spending most my life living in a NIMBY paradise” “Me & Mrs Jones (and her fat brown envelopes)” and “an unscrupulous developer ate my greenbelt”.

Except these are the things people are complaining will happen under Localism. Is this really all that public planning debate really amounts to still? Who is to blame for this cynical and stereotypical outlook on what planning is about and for? Why is it that people only engage with the planning system when they are thoroughly browned off, want to complain or officially object? How did it become such a deficit model?

Planners? Well, what have we as a planning profession done to alter the perception of us as process monkeys seduced by the resounding kerrr-thunk of the “REFUSED” stamp? For most local people the planning process is a mystery, shrouded in tiny fonts, aggressive institutional-speak, over-the-top bureaucracy, inability to see things without the safety blanket of policy and a funfair of forms. Is this fit-for-purpose and in the public interest? No. It alienates people and divorces them from their local area by sticking up all manner of opportunities for them to go: “it’s just not worth it.” That is not good enough.

Councils? Councils are in the proverbial rock and a hard place; refuse development and they risk stifling any chance of local recovery; so under pressure to let development through it risks chucking hard-won goals to weave strategic, balanced and consultative planning frameworks out of the window. RSS’s have gone, LEPS are coming, LDF’s and AAP’s sit alongside outmoded UDP’s and the landscape is getting very crowded……oh and with less resources. But committee meetings are death by typeset, unsociable hours and go on forever. Why would anyone ever want to sit through that?!

Central Government: to quote Greg Clarke “The current sum of circulars, policy statements and so forth is bigger than the complete Works of Shakespeare, and not nearly as entertaining. Guidance on this scale flirts with the absurd: there’s no way a practitioner can keep it all in mind. “Thanks for your concern, but actually I know many a planner that prides themselves on being able to do this! It didn’t all arrive overnight. Some of us write, research, study and argue it out in court not to mention implement it on a daily basis! These people are also unlikely to be person reading your lovingly laminated planning notice in 5pt arial tied to a lamppost at the dark end of the street…..

Developers? Ah planning, the whipping boy of the development process and then some. Got an issue with your development – got to be something to do with planning! Why can’t I develop what I want, where I want, with what I want and not ask anyone what they think and then just walk away when I’ve got my magic number? Planning is a necessary evil guarding against unfettered development and irresponsible land use. It’s not perfect, is open to abuse and has many holes but it is there for a reason – to protect local areas and local communities from being rode roughshod. Developers need to engage with communities in ways that avoid the adversarial and that means real dialogue and real relationships.

Us? Afraid of putting local decision-making on planning in local hands? It’s as if you expect local people to just be in it to screw each other, self-promote, thwart everyone else’s happiness? It’s not like we are tone deaf when it comes to design, woefully narrow minded and petty, always moaning and never thinking beyond the garden fence? Well, there are a lot of people who are interested and do care but don’t have the time, resources or skills to participate. Or they did once and they were roundly patronised and ignored. Or this is the umpteenth time I’ve been asked to do this now why will this time be different? It will only be different if we make it different.

OK I’m playing devil’s (pro-bono) advocate but it seems to me that we are all culpable. As a planner I would naturally say that it is for the planning profession to step up to the plate and change perceptions of us just being about fulfilling a process and more about enabling it. Communities, councils, developers, activists, businesses, organisations all have a role to play in that process. The real question is what will a planning system look like without planners?

Planners have to manage a wide variety of diverse and often conflicting issues, seeking the best outcome that marries the local with the global and represents wide interest whilst also thinking strategically and decades into the future. That is a craft and a skill and should not be undervalued and undermined. We need to be vocal and assertive about this and the need for sound planning rigour to underpin any transfer of power and decision-making to communities. Without it we could be counting the costs and consequences for a long time. Planners are not the vanguards of doom (mostly).

Localism could make a difficult and convoluted process even more so. Or it can provide an opportunity to offer clarity to local people, restore trust and faith in the planning process and profession, allow proper engagement between developers and the people they will be affecting and finally……treat community as client instead of receiver.
Or…..maybe that’s just my fairytale.

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