A new settlement for planning

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Transcript of the speech as delivered. It’s a striking fact that the people gathered together in this room will, collectively, have a greater…

Transcript of the speech as delivered.

It’s a striking fact that the people gathered together in this room will, collectively, have a greater impact on the way Britain will live during the decades ahead than almost any gathering of people of a similar size anywhere in the UK.

The way our cities, towns and villages will look.

How amenable they are to living, working and relaxing in them.

Whether our towns and our countryside are supporting more wildlife, or whether nature is in decline.

Whether the places we work in are liberating and inspiring, or mean and depressing.

Whether we travel easily and quickly, or whether getting about impairs our health and our environment.

Whether the places in which children not yet born will have their childhood are places they will remember as special, or as hostile.

There is scarcely a more momentous responsibility than that which is embodied in this profession and I count it as an enormous privilege to have been working with you during the last year.

For me, the purpose of planning is to help make the way we live our lives better tomorrow than it is today.

And not just tomorrow - but a million tomorrows, so that nothing our generation does compromises the ability - indeed the right - of future generations to improve their own lives.

Planning is not merely preservation. Our lives tomorrow will not be better if our built environment stays the same.

In fact - with a growing population, changing household characteristics, and new technologies - they will be considerably worse if we don’t change.

We need more housing - many more houses - new workplaces, new transport systems, and new infrastructure to support the way we live now and the way we will live in the future.

So planning is about growth - but it is not just the growth in the built environment.

I believe our natural environment can be better cared for.

Historic habitats that have been destroyed can be re-established.

Species that have become trapped in isolated refuges must be reconnected.

Monotonous swathes of brown masquerading as ‘green belt’ should be improved to live up to their name and be refilled by nature.

And the green belt should be somewhere in which people, especially those in towns and cities, can hope to encounter nature and air and openness personally, rather than view it from a nose pressed against a car window on a ring road.

Our design can be much better than it is. Ours is a country which is home to more than our fair share of the world’s best architects, and communities who are passionate about the places that they call home.

Mostly, we love where we live, and that is an ideal circumstance for excellence.

So the purpose of planning is development - but sustainable development, driving social, economic and environmental improvements for successive generations.

Everything you do, everything I want to do with you, is to champion sustainable development - and there is equal emphasis on both those words.

But our planning system has - over a long period - drifted from delivering its potential.

Planning has become too defensive, too pessimistic.

Indeed, we have reached a point in which the default assumption by much of the public is that any particular change to our built environment will be negative.

That it will tend to impair beauty, damage the environment and make residents’ lives worse.

The planning process, far from being a forum for inclusion and potential, has become an arena of antagonism in which acrimony and litigation have too often replaced co-operation and community.

True sustainability - actually improving the economic, environment and social conditions for future generations as well as our own - has been the victim of this lowered horizon.

That’s why the public perception of planning has got to change - from being a pessimistic, zero-sum (or even negative sum) wrangle to being a creative exercise in economic, aesthetic, social and environmental improvement.

The challenge for the planning profession is to be agents of creativity - emphasising inspiration, community leadership, finding solutions.

All the reforms we contemplated in Opposition - and which we are now implementing in Government - are based on reorienting the system towards promoting sustainable development.

The opportunity for every neighbourhood to develop a vision for their future and - if they can win the support of a majority in that community - have it adopted as part of the development plan.

The abolition of the top-down regional spatial strategies - which were a crude, remote and resented bureaucratic solution to the timeless problem of how to reflect the larger-than-local aspects that are essential to good planning.

The replacement of regional administrative fiat with a duty to co-operate - not just between neighbouring councils, but between all relevant public bodies - represents a more human, more natural, more positive way of giving proper voice to strategic planning, and I’m grateful to the RTPI for their help in strengthening this duty during the Localism Bill committee.

The determination that the benefits of development should not be instantly and totally vacuumed up by the national Treasury from every community that hosts development, but that much more of it should be kept by the communities themselves - whether through CIL, the New Homes Bonus or - as the review of local government finance will soon establish - the retention of more of the business rates generated by new development.

These benefits - already morally the property of the communities - can be used for all of the purposes of sustainable development: to improve the local economy including by investing in infrastructure; to improve the environment and to improve the social wellbeing of an area.

The replacement of a set of national policy documents that has grown and grown until it contains more words than the complete works of Shakespeare (but which is rather less lyrical) - making it completely inaccessible to all but the experts - with what will be a clear, concise statement of policy that in its clarity and simplicity communicates purposefully the aims of national policy.

And, perhaps the reform that best embodies a switch to can-do planning; an approach in plan-making and decision-taking to a positive volition for sustainable development: a new presumption in favour of sustainable development which will be a golden thread running through national policy to plan-making to decision-taking.

I am publishing tomorrow a working draft of the presumption that I am minded to take, in advance of the publication of a whole draft National Planning Policy Framework next month.

Let me give you a taste of it now.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development will mean that every local council should:

  • plan positively for new development
  • prepare local plans on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met
  • approve development proposals that accords with plans without delay
  • grant permission where a plan is absent, silent or out of date.

Unless, in each case, to do so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the policy objectives of sustainable development - defined, economically, environmentally and socially.

As was said by a planning officer in this morning’s session - the presumption entrenches plan-making at the heart of the system.

Excellent communities and councils should have sound, up-to-date plans that embody the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Without an up-to-date local plan, decisions will be made according to national policy.

The emphasis is on finding ways by which development that can enhance the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of an area, now and in the future - in sustainable development - can be made.

As Steve Quartermain said this morning he, like most people in this room, went into planning to make things happen.

The new world which we are about to enter is a challenge for this profession.

I have said before that planners have been the victims of the creeping delegitimisation of the system you have worked in.

You have been caught in the crossfire.

Too often seen as agents of imposition by local communities, forcing on them remote rules and allocations.

Yet, paradoxically, at the same time, characterised by applicants as ‘nay-sayers’ and part of a slow, expensive system that has even led the profession to be painted, as Richard said, as the “enemies of enterprise”.

You just can’t win.

The challenge for the profession is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cause both prejudices to be shed.

To make sure planning is seen as a crucial service operating in the public interest.

In the bluntest terms, as a force for good.

How should this look?

First, under the reformed planning system, the required demeanour is positive. The new arrangements including, above all, the presumption in favour of sustainable development, put the emphasis on seeking out opportunities for growth.

Second, it will place new demands on your skills in community leadership, forging relationships with local people and communities.

As Paula Ridley said earlier today, this means turning things around so that communities become the client for planners and councils.

The challenge will be to use your expertise and your skills to find ways for communities themselves to say ‘yes’ to sustainable growth, and to help them recognise that good planning and sustainable development can be the means to enhance and improve the places that they care for.

Third, for those in business, it obviously prizes a kind of relationship between businesses and communities. The most savvy developers are already there - Taylor Wimpey is but one housebuilder that has thought hard about the challenge of localism, changing their practices and approach.

Those who get localism know that they will succeed by working with communities in creative, progressive and sometimes, unexpected ways. But, as for those whose business model has relied on using regional strategies to dictate to local communities rather than engage with them, I predict that they will find that, without change, a toxic local reputation will prove an impediment to success.

I think there is a challenge, too, to the profession as it is organised.

I was a strategy consultant and strategy consultancies are notorious for not being terribly strategic in the way they run themselves.

If I look at the planning profession, I sometimes think it has been slow to see change coming, and indeed has almost been taken by surprise by it, rather than anticipating and shaping that change to the maximum extent possible. In other words, paradoxically, it hasn’t always been in this respect that good at planning!

Too often it has been commenting on others’ proposals rather than seizing the initiative and shaping the change itself.

If I could give one example, the Institute’s manifesto published last April was an encapsulation of the status quo - not so much a plan for the future, more of a defence of the present.

And this at a time when two major political parties were calling for fundamental, root and branch reforms.

As Richard and Trudie have said, I think that things have improved.

As I mentioned, the RTPI’s input on the duty to cooperate has been very effective.

Similarly, there have been plenty of instances of outstanding individuals putting their ideas forward and seeking to shape change.

I think in particular of John Rhodes and Simon Marsh, one half of the quartet of expert practitioners who drew up informed proposals for the draft for the National Planning Policy Framework - a much simpler and more forceful way of expressing the values that planning aims to uphold.

In our official draft framework, which we aim to publish next month, we will seek to emulate their concision - they have shown what can be done by getting on and doing it rather than theorising about it.

This is a Government determined to make policy in different ways.

No-one has a monopoly on wisdom.

We will have an Open Source Approach; we want people to suggest the answers to the questions as well as just raising questions.

Some individuals and organisations are jumping at the chance. For example, the RICS have put up their hand to write some of the revised and more concise guidance that will accompany the slimmed-down planning policy. I would hope very much that the RTPI, with its huge wealth of expertise and experience, would also be keen to play a leading role in that process.

The next year is going to be the most crucial for British planning in half a century.

By next June, we will, quite simply, be in a whole new world.

The Localism Act will be in place.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission will be gone.

Ministers will be taking decisions on major infrastructure projects.

The regional tier of governance will be gone.

The duty to co-operate will be in force.

Communities will have the right to take up neighbourhood planning.

A new simpler radically more concise National Planning Policy Framework will be guiding the hand of planners and decision-makers.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development will be in force.

This is nothing less than a new settlement for the planning system.

One in which the planning profession can finally take its rightful place in the flourishing of our nation.