The Future of Planning and Place-making?

Edited on 11th February 2015 by John Tweed

Along with twenty other representatives from local government, the housing industry, academia and the environmental professions in the Northwest, John Tweed was invited by the Town and Country Planning Association to attend a round table event in Manchester on 9th Feb to discuss the future of planning and place making.

The event was the last in a series of similar focus groups around the regions to help the TCPA formulate a positive agenda for the incoming government on the future of planning and place-making. Feed-back from the focus groups will be compiled into a short report setting out solution-focussed recommendations to be published by the end of March. To encourage frank and open debate the discussion was conducted under the Chatham House rule (non-attributable comments). The discussion ranged widely before being brought to some key conclusions. The following are just a few (not by any means comprehensive) notes of the key issues raised in discussion:

On Local Government Planning:

Adoption of Local Plans is generally behind the curve, burdened by process and frequently undermined by High Court decisions. Despite recent increases in the number of housing approvals local government planning departments are often under-resourced and conflicted by political pressures that arrive without clear strategic goals. The duty for neighbouring authorities to cooperate imposed by NPPF is only patchily met, with parochial interest ruling on attempts to realistically define housing need (in general the Manchester City region authorities are regarded as an exception to this). Local Government is now dangerously unpopular with graduates and applications for employment to the private sector currently far outnumber the former. Too much capable professional resource is being distracted by domestic extensions.

On Neighbourhood Planning:

Good in principle but relies on local plans being in place which is widely not the case. The process is far too complex and weighty. Worthy aims but ties up resources. Most critically parochialism (inevitably) rules in the lack of clear local and regional spatial strategies. The result is a crisis in managing the expectations of the communities involved. With better top-down aims and policies neighbourhoods would be able to better focus on their place in the scheme of things and define realistic aspirations. In the current circumstances developers regard NP as a highly retrograde step that is too often used to simply block development rather than inform sensible new proposals.

On greenbelt:

Needs a serious rethink.

On sustainability:

Universal agreement that there is nothing like a universal definition of what it means in planning practice.

On moving forward:

Where the UK was the ‘go-to’ destination for ideas around constructive planning policy making and place shaping in the last millennium we are in danger of being the poor man of Europe and will be seeking to follow other nation’s exemplars. Nevertheless the discussion ended on a positive note. In the context of unprecedented uncertainty about the outcome of the general election it was felt that there is real opportunity to shape change for the good. There was Universal agreement that we have to reinvent some kind of system for multilevel spatial strategy. Like the branches of a tree each level must inform and be informed by its next tiers in the structure. There were positive views about the potential role of city-regions in the new planning landscape, with Manchester in particular cited as the exemplar that everyone is watching.