Local ownership of local planning

Local politicians seem to be tailoring the new planning regime to their areas, says Andrew Matheson.

The Royal Town Planning Institute's Politicians in Planning Network (PIPA) Conference 2011 was held on Guy Fawkes Day. An image that ran through several presentations was the government's "burning" of 1,300 pages of planning guidance to arrive at the 52-page draft National Planning Policy Framework.

But perhaps the image that will stay longest in delegates' minds was the protest camp outside the Bristol Council House venue - said by the Guardian to be the largest in the UK outside London. The theme of the event was "Delivering Sustainable Growth" and the protesters' message about reform in the world of finance was a cogent reminder that, without secure funding, any new planned development will never be more than an aspiration. Delivery is rarely entirely in the hands of councils.

Councillors gathered from as far as Cornwall, Essex and Yorkshire and, given the current localist agenda for planning, many delegates represented town or parish councils.

After morning presentations on the changing legislative scene and practical insights into the delivery of commercial and housing growth, there was a lively Question Time-style session that laid the foundations for a day of networking and interchange.

Many questioners were concerned that planning changes were making it harder for councils to deliver the community visions for their areas.

Encouraged by statements from ministers, many developers have been seeking to unwind negotiated agreements or move immediately to appeal without negotiation. Likewise, in the face of changes, many councils have put plan-making on hold and the untested routes forward often appear uninviting. One presentation showing an actions grid for neighbourhood planning seemed more like a military campaign!

But despite this sharing of concerns, many councillors were showing local leadership and being astute in tailoring what is - overall - a less prescriptive new planning regime to benefit their areas and reach out to their neighbours for cooperation. They also expressed gratitude for the RTPI's largely successful efforts to beef up the "duty to cooperate" in the Localism Act.

In his closing remarks, RTPI president Richard Summers noted that planning has never been more in the public eye than in recent months. The type of balanced decision-making that planners and planning councillors must perform has been characterised - not always helpfully - within such campaigns as the Daily Telegraph's Hands Off Our Land and Inside Housing's Get On Our Land.

It will be a challenge to garner and hold the public's interest in planning while dispelling any unwarranted cynicism. But Summers said he was heartened by the commitment to excellence in planning he had seen across the day.

Andrew Matheson is the RTPI network manager for PIPA. The RTPI thanks the Planning Advisory Service for its financial support for the conference. For more about the event and details of how councillors can take up free membership of the network, visit www.rtpi.org.uk/pipa.

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