Wednesday, 18 March 2015

On the futility of strategic town planning


Stanley Wardley presenting his Bradford masterplan

In our profession, a plan that everyone dislikes for different reasons is a success. A plan everyone dislikes for the same reason is a failure. And a plan that everyone likes for the same reason is an act of God. (Richard Carson, Planner)

In 'Parliament of Whores' P J O'Rourke wrote about (amongst other things) the US agricultural subsidy business. The great humorist wasn't impressed and concluded:

"I spent two and a half years examining the American political process. All that time I was looking for a straightforward issue. But everything I investigated - election campaigns, the budget, lawmaking, the court system, bureaucracy, social policy - turned out to be more complicated than I had thought. There were always angles I hadn't considered, aspects I hadn't weighed, complexities I'd never dreamed of. Until I got to agriculture. Here at last is a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax."

I feel more-or-less the same about the UK's planning system. This system, spawned by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, has grown ever more burdensome and complicated as new features are added with each iteration of planning legislation. Anyone who has tried to engage with our process of plan making will quickly realise that it is almost entirely impossible to square the circle of housing need, environmental protection, sustainable communities and provision for transport or employment.

The system satisfies nobody. Local and national campaign groups complain about the presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' arguing that this is a licence for the developers to concrete over the last vestiges of England's green and pleasant land. Housing developers moan that the requirement for 'planning gain' is simply a tax on development meaning that fewer houses get built and some marginal places remain undeveloped even though everyone says they need developing. And local councils point out that the system is so prescriptive that they have very little room to make policy decisions on the basis of local need and expectation. I'm sure also that the planning inspectorate and Whitehall planning eggheads are equally frustrated that their sleek machine now has so many knobs, bells and whistles tacked onto it - it has become a veritable Heath Robinson of a system.

Even within development control (or development management as Council planning departments like to say these days) there are peculiar quirks and foibles of policy:

In contrast to the rendering plant – a stinking, noisy intrusion into the ‘green belt’ – this modest proposal (again despite my eloquence) was refused. One Councillor described the half complete building as an “abortion” while others clambered up onto high horses proclaiming the sanctity of the Council’s ‘green belt’ policies. A complete contrast to the discussion about the extension to the rendering plant where members – the same members – had fallen over each other to explain “more in sorrow than anger” how necessary a huge store for trucks was and that this justified a massive development in the ‘green belt’.

The modest proposal was to build a hay store for horses.  I've seen applications refused for noise reasons only to see an almost identical application granted permission. And decisions taken to protect the landscape or the environment in one location while allowing the very same development elsewhere in an equally protected locality.

I understand why people see the need for a planning system. Concerns about a development free-for-all are genuine and, given the nature of mainstream development, it's hard to question that concern. But we never ask why it is that we have a system that means the only housebuilding possible is that delivered either by mass housebuilders or by the government. Our system assumes that the best way to meet housing need is through 'strategic land releases', carefully designed 'urban extensions' and centrally-planned 'garden cities'. Yet when we look elsewhere this isn't the case - across much of Europe over half of housing is either self-build or built by small builders. This rises to over 80% in Austria.

Our system - as currently designed - simply doesn't allow for such an approach. Indeed, in places where the Community Infrastructure Levy (essentially a development tax) is high, a developer who sought to adopt the European model of parcelling up land for self-build would be seen as seeking to avoid that charge. The assumption in the UK is that large scale development allows for funding to development local infrastructure such as schools, health centres, railway stations and playgrounds. Indeed, we seem to believe that this is the only way in which such infrastructure will be provided. No mass housebuilding means no new schools.

The real picture is that using planning gain or a development tax to fund infrastructure is a very inefficient (and largely ineffective) way to provide those schools, roads and parks. The theory is that this 'community infrastructure' is contingent on that development - the new housing results in the need for new facilities. Yet at the same time, we are saying that the provision and distribution of new housing isn't based on where people want to live but on an 'objective assessed need' for that housing. This isn't housing for new people, it's housing for people we already have - or that's what the housing numbers folk are telling us.

Five years ago the current government set out to have a proper big tidy up of the planning system. This recognised that the accumulation of regulations, legal case history, legislation and guidance had reached the point where no person could begin to comprehend the system and how it worked. In its officious way the previous Labour government had passed its Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act in 2004 requiring that we have a 'regional spatial strategy' and that, based on this strategy, local councils develop a new 'local development framework'. These requirements were simply piled onto the top of existing development control practice making for an entirely unwieldy, sclerotic and ineffective system.

It sounded good to throw all this stuff out and start again with a simple, easy-read 'national planning policy framework'. Something that every informed layman could read and understand, a newly clear and effective planning framework. And this was (after a great deal of huffing and chuntering) delivered - you can read it:

The National Planning Policy Framework sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how these are expected to be applied. It sets out the Government’s requirements for the planning system only to the extent that it is relevant, proportionate and necessary to do so. It provides a framework within which local people and their accountable councils can produce their own distinctive local and neighbourhood plans, which reflect the needs and priorities of their communities. 

All you needed was the NPPF - everything else is down to local councils and local communities. Except, as anyone attending an 'examination in public' (no more of those nasty public enquiries) for a 'local plan' will know, it's not that simple. Indeed the requirement for the local plan and the associated process wasn't provided for in the Localism Act 2011 but is essentially the system in the 2004 Act without the 'regional spatial strategy' and with things given different names. Moreover, those planning eggheads in Whitehall weren't content to leave it up to the judgement of local planners (let alone local councillors) and have produced a thing called 'Planning Practice Guidance' - thousands of pages of 'guidance' to local planners on making their plans and thereafter applying the policies in the plan to the management of development.

And as you all know, 'guidance' in Whitehall-speak doesn't mean 'here's some hints and tips on the best way to do this stuff'. It means 'unless you've a very good reason not to, this is the way you will do things, and in case you've forgotten every planning lawyer will be waving it at inspectors and judges as if Moses had brought it down from Mount Sinai'. Planning is a rules-based system and that guidance provides the rules.

The result of such a complicated system with such a big rule book is that there are glitches and loopholes. By way of illustration go and look at the rules for a classic board game like Cluedo (four pages) and contrast them with the rulebook for a big strategy wargame like War in the Pacific (56 pages plus a 12 page scenarios booklet and a 16 page book of charts and tables). There are almost no loopholes or glitches in Cluedo but War in the Pacific contains any number of said holes that the assiduous gamer with a love of reading the rule book can discover.

The more I look at the English planning system, the more I feel the need to fetch that axe and to put the overgrown thing out of its misery. Or rather to relieve the poor folk - builders, local residents, councillors - that the system forces to jump though hoops.  As I've observed before, every planning authority has a huge planning policy document few have read that is backed up by literally dozens of other studies, comments, papers and guidance notes. All so we can decide whether you can build on the paddock, if the family over the road can put in a dormer bedroom, and where the pub on the corner can put its extractor fan.

As I commented about habitat regulations, most of the constraints can and should be dealt with at the level of the individual application. You don't need a new set of policies merely describing the requirements set out in other legislation. If EU rules tell you that development isn't allowed somewhere that's it. And if those rules say the impact of development on wildlife must be mitigated there's no need to go through a long process to decide on the wording of a policy that, more-or-less, says that the impact of development on wildlife must be mitigated because those rules say so.

And the same goes for flooding and drainage, the protection of historic buildings and the preservation of landscapes. All of these things have specific protections and regulations pertaining to those protections - there's no need for a plan that simply repeats (sort of) what those other policies say. Yet hours of argument and discussion is undertaken and hundreds of pages of justification penned just to comply with a silly rule that says the plan has to reword policies written for another purpose in another place.

There is much wrong with planning - hence the system's need for mercy killing - but little that can be resolved by the preferred approach of tinkering around. We can change the spatial focus up and down from national to regional to sub-regional to local but still miss the point - it's not the grand plan but the detail that matters. And setting rules for the detail is hard, it verges on the impossible. To return to War in the Pacific - the bit of the game that slowed things up was the logistics rules so these were scrapped:

The rules have undergone significant change with greatly increased emphasis on detail in combat while removing the detailed logistics system that was the focus of the old game and replacing it with a command point system modeled after Victory Games' "Pacific War."

Playability trumps the desire for authenticity - conducting a war across millions of square miles of ocean was always about logistics rather than merely the crunch on actual battle.  But logistics are dull, complicated and hard to model. So it is with planning - the bit of the game planners like is the bit with big maps and coloured pencils, the making of sweeping decisions about new towns, new roads and new parks. But the bit of the game that matters is the detail, the regulations, the guidance, the policies. The 'national planning policy framework' was a valiant attempt to do to England's planning system what games designers did to War in the Pacific - make it playable.

The problem is that it's those details, the bureaucracy of planning, that are the planning system. Without them planning is pointless. But then maybe it is...

In complex situations, we may rely too heavily on planning and forecasting and underestimate the importance of random factors in the environment. That reliance can also lead to delusions of control. (Hillel Eindhorn, Behavioural Scientist)


1 comment:

Ian B said...

It always amuses me what lengths we go to to preserve the buildings and layouts thereof that were constructed before any such planning systems, almost as if people got along fine without the regulation and we rather like what they built.

Strange, isn't it?