Five ways in which spatial planning has changed since the 1990s, by Catriona Riddell

I was recently asked by the Women in Planning Network to write about my career and the people who have helped me along the way. This led me to reflect on the differences between spatial planning when I first started out in the 1990s and today.

For me the biggest difference is the freedom that we had back then to be creative and develop genuinely visionary plans. Today’s planning system is so bogged down in process, with the priorities being to deliver a five-year supply of housing land and meet the government’s housing delivery test, rather than to change places for the better. This lack of opportunity to be truly visionary is linked to my second main difference, which is the reluctance to scrutinise and apply professional judgement to the technical evidence base.

It is often assumed in today’s system that the evidence will give you the answer, probably because this is considered to reduce the risk of challenge. But this is rarely the case; the technical evidence is there to expose the options and articulate policy interventions that could help deliver the vision and priorities of the plan. It is then for the planners to bring all the factors together for local politicians to make their informed choices.

The third area of difference that I would cite is the lack of internal specialists and the need to outsource and commission most of the evidence base. In the world before the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), strategic planning teams had the capacity and internal expertise to support all local authorities in their plan-making functions. This valuable resource no longer exists, with the result being that evidence-gathering today is a very expensive and time-consuming process, with procurement an industry in itself.

The next key difference is the absence of the levels of support previously provided to planners in terms of both career and personal development. You’d be hard pushed to find many local authorities that provide mentoring support and opportunities to go to external training, particularly if they are located outside London and travel costs have to be factored in.

My final difference, and possibly the most important, is the lack of champions at both the political and officer level. The RTPI and Planning Officers Society have been pushing the latter by highlighting the value of having planners at the top table in local authorities (see Planning, November, page 22), but potentially the biggest challenge in recent years has been the constant change in political leadership.

Pre-NPPF, some of the most controversial decisions were made at a strategic level, which helped to dilute the politics at the local level. The blame game so despised by the 2010 coalition Government was considered by many an effective tool for making difficult decisions. Each tier within the system could blame the one above for imposing housing allocations but then move on and deliver them, working positively with the communities involved as the hard decisions on numbers had already been made. The loss of strategic planning is probably a key reason why local politics is so much more volatile today.

This is not a rose-tinted perspective of planning departments in bygone days, as most of the issues I have raised can be addressed to some extent, but planning must be seen as more than just a process. So next time we ask for the planning system to change, let us also ask for support to develop a culture in which planners are respected and admired for the professional and important job that they do.

Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant

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