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As is the case for anyone in the built environment professions, since the recent update to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in December, we've been analysing the changes, their meanings and consequences.
Misconceptions of Planning: Text
We’ve also been reflecting on the importance of planning. Michael Gove's speech, 'Falling back in love with the future,' along with the accompanying Ministerial Statement, sheds light on the often-overlooked role of planners:
‘Planning is the means by which we bring harmony to development, make places cohere and people connect, planners give communities a heart by appealing to our souls, planners take landscapes which have been neglected, despoiled or left fallow and build something to delight the eye and command affection.
It is a great pity that the skill and vision of our planning professionals has not always enjoyed the respect and status it deserves. I am determined to ensure that planning is recognised as it should be as the profession which answers to and serves our deepest needs as social animals – the quest for community’.
In this article, we explore the misconceptions surrounding planning, delving into the reasons behind the lack of appreciation for the skill and vision of planning professionals.
Funding and resourcing challenges in the Public Sector
The Ministerial Statement promises financial support for planners in local government, aiming to reward and acknowledge their efforts. However, the historical lack of adequate funding and resources within the public sector has hindered planners' ability to fulfil their roles optimally. This scarcity of resources not only affects the efficiency of planning processes but also perpetuates the misconception that planning is a less critical aspect of governance.
The data on funding for planning services within the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) Interim State of the Profession 2023 Report reveals a concerning trend. Despite a 14% increase in income from planning services in England, totalling £577 million in 2022-23; total public expenditure on planning services contracted by 16%, falling from £1.4 billion in 2009-10 to £1.17 billion in 2022-23. This discrepancy is attributed to a 33.34% decrease in direct public investment in planning, dropping from £893 million to £594 million between 2009 and 2023.
We work with various different Local Planning Authorities (LPA) and can see the direct impact that this decrease has had on resourcing. One LPA we work closely with only has two senior planning officers which highlights both the strain on resources and difficulty in recruiting and retaining public sector planners. We are also noticing an increased reliance on outsourcing to private sector companies for both planning officer work and technical consultee. This indicates a shift in how these authorities are coping with resource challenges.
While planning fee increases offer a potential solution to this, the RTPI’s Report suggests that without ringfencing the additional revenue or recovering full costs, these measures may only slow the decline in Local Planning Authority resourcing, potentially coming too late to prevent staff cuts in some planning departments. Gove's Ministerial statement emphasises that Local Authorities are obliged to allocate these fees specifically for planning services, and there should be no reduction in spend on planning the general funds of authorities. This is promising and will hopefully allow some authorities to recover their resources.
In essence, the challenges in funding and resourcing for planning services serve as a stark reminder of the systemic issues that perpetuate misconceptions about the importance of planning in governance.
On World Town Planning Day 2023, the RTPI launched the 'It Takes Planners &’ campaign with the objective of tackling misinformation online by raising the awareness of the pivotal role that planners play in creating liveable, healthy communities.
The ease of expressing opinions anonymously online has empowered certain people to manipulate discussions related to local planning decisions. A March 2023 study, conducted by The Planner, brought to light that 87% of planners attribute the spread of misinformation about local planning issues to the influence of social media.
As a graduate planner myself, I am still learning about the complexities of the planning system. Even as a student studying planning, planning terminology isn't always straight forward to grasp, so it’s understandable that concepts might be challenging for those directly affected by planning decisions. As highlighted by RTPI President, Sue Bridge, there is a pressing need to address the lack of understanding about the planning system. It is crucial to inform both the public and the media about the vital role planners play in their communities. Often, people do not fully appreciate the positive impacts that developments can have on the climate, society, and the economy, not to mention the additional benefits stemming from planning agreements to improve local areas.
Important initiatives such as ‘It Takes Planners &,’ can help to raise awareness of the transformative effects of planning, such as enhancing access to green space, improving infrastructure, fostering economic prosperity, and promoting affordable housing.
Barratt David Wilson Homes recently commissioned Savills to conduct research examining the actual outcomes of a 208-unit residential development in Winsford, Cheshire, which is now occupied. The study compares the actual impacts of the scheme post-occupancy with predictions made by both opponents of the planning application and technical consultants. The findings reveal that, contrary to the concerns raised, the scheme did not negatively impact education or health services. Both capacity and service quality were upheld, consistent with conclusions made by technical consultants. Undertaking more research of this nature in the future could help to address the misconceptions and misinformation in planning, fostering awareness of the positive and transformative effects of such developments for local communities. In light of these insights, we should arguably be encouraging more impact information as a standard part of a planning application. Providing such information could play an important role in highlighting the positive aspects of a development.
Politicisation of Concepts
Certain concepts have become battlegrounds for political discourse, shaping the way cities are developed and communities structured. Two examples of significant politicisation are the Green Belt and the idea of ‘15-minute cities’.
The Green Belt, originally introduced as a planning tool to control urban sprawl and protect valuable natural spaces, has evolved into a politically charged topic.
On one hand, environmental advocates argue for the preservation of these areas to safeguard biodiversity, promote sustainable living, and mitigate the effects of climate change. On the other hand, developers and some policymakers argue that easing Green Belt restrictions could address housing shortages and stimulate economic growth. The politicisation of the Green Belt has led to a struggle between these competing interests, often overshadowing the original intent of maintaining a balance between urban development and environmental conservation.
Meanwhile, a significant challenge arises as members of the public frequently misconstrue the Green Belt's definition. This misunderstanding influences public perspectives on developments proposed in the Green Belt. Ensuring that the public has an accurate understanding becomes crucial in navigating these debates and maintaining a balanced approach to urban and environmental considerations.
The concept of 15-minute cities, envisioning self-sufficient neighbourhoods where residents can fulfil most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride, has become entangled in political debates. Originally this idea was proposed in order to enhance urban liveability and reduce reliance on cars. However, its implementation is often influenced by hostile political ideologies and economic considerations.
Critics express concerns that the 15-minute city model may exacerbate socio-economic disparities, with affluent neighbourhoods enjoying superior amenities compared to less privileged areas. Some argue that it encroaches upon our basic freedoms to move freely and is perceived as supporting a surveillance state, infringing on our privacy and autonomy. The political tug-of-war surrounding the 15-minute city concept highlights how even well-intentioned planning ideas can be manipulated to serve political agendas. This manipulation can potentially hinder their capacity to create inclusive and sustainable urban environments.
Reducing these concepts to political talking points arguably contributes to a lack of nuanced understanding. It is essential to recognise and dispel these misconceptions, to foster informed discussions and ensure that planning decisions align with the genuine goals of creating equitable, sustainable, and vibrant urban spaces. In relation to decision making at Planning Committees, we've noticed that decisions often become politicised, with members sometimes disregarding professional and expert advice in favour of responding to constituents. The Ministerial Statement highlights this issue, emphasising that overturning recommendations from professionals should be rare and prompts the inspectorate to consider awarding costs to the appellant if reasonable grounds for overturning recommendations cannot be found.
Misinformation, coupled with funding constraints, has fostered an environment where planners are undervalued, and their contributions underestimated and misunderstood. The politicisation of planning concepts has further complicated matters, turning well-intentioned ideas into political battlegrounds and impeding their potential for creating genuinely inclusive and sustainable urban environments.
In response to these challenges, initiatives like the RTPI’s 'It Takes Planners &' campaign act as a crucial step forward. By raising awareness about the role planners play in shaping liveable, healthy communities, such campaigns strive to counter online misinformation that contributes to misconceptions about planning.
Misconceptions of Planning: Text
Misconceptions of Planning: Image
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