Fyson on ... the government getting its story straight

The government getting its story straight and making localism ideals function in the real world.

It came as a bit of a surprise to members of the National Planning Forum last week to be told that they occupy a "bureaucratic swamp" where people are "not allowed to participate".

The speaker had just launched a planning consultancy and could not wait to see a bonfire of policy statements. We should all stop worrying and accept that developers already know enough about sustainability.

Left to it, they would act responsibly. Implementation, not policy, should be the focus and planners should realise that since they are unable to ensure desirable outcomes they should simply "let go". This would only be a recipe for chaos "if we have no faith".

Conservative MP John Howell, chief author of the Conservatives' Open Source Planning green paper professed amazement at the warmth of his reception.

The suggestion that this novel politeness could be because his party is now in power was dismissed, along with doubts about the adequacy of his analysis, as "tosh". The expected upsurge in bottom-up planning initiatives driven by community enthusiasm would vindicate the prime minister's big society ideals.

Howell said that planning will now be an essentially local matter driven by the priorities of small communities, from which it followed that the next high-speed rail decision is "not a planning issue".

The age of consultation is over, he claimed, and the watchword has to be "engagement". All this must have been news to transport secretary Philip Hammond, who had just told the Conservative Party conference that he would soon be consulting on the new HS2 route.

Mystifyingly, Howell went on to assert that the proposed national planning framework would not be spatial and would respect the norms of the new "post-target world".

Government does not intend to reinvent regional planning, although to some forum members the introduction of local enterprise partnerships gives hope that strategic planning above the local level still has a future.

Impatience with planning details will not make the complexities of development simply disappear. The localism bill, due in November, will somehow have to make it a lot easier for local communities to dream up viable development initiatives that fit into a national framework. Planning expertise will surely be needed.

Many schemes could prove undesirable on environmental or social grounds. DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain's hope that the populace will be transformed "from nimbies to yimbies" must be regarded, on the evidence so far, as just a tad open to doubt.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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