How power in planning is shifting to local communities, by Chris Brown

This is my last of my PlanningResource columns, so here's a final thought.

Successive governments have made incremental changes to shape the planning system to their view of the world, and over the last few years they have sought to unleash market forces through these changes.

Recently, the government has been offered two new approaches, a beauty-led system (offered by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC)), and a two use class system (offered by the Policy Exchange think tank). The first recognises the negative externalities of the market failures in property development, the latter recognises the multiple government failures in the planning system.

This has been a constant theme in my writing for PlanningResource. Markets and government fail frequently, and they always will. As a result, developers have 2 per cent trust ratings, with local councils little better at 7 per cent. In contrast, 40 per cent of people think people in their neighbourhood can be trusted.

So might there be a ‘Third Way’ to do planning? How might we transition to a new system? And, if it still involves markets and governments, how do we create a system that reduces the chances of either of them failing.

I’ve tried, and probably failed, in these opinion pieces to avoid too many of my own prejudices coming through. However, in this last one I would like to offer an alternative to the market bad, government bad, debate.

My experience of trying to do decent development in difficult places, has finally led me to the conclusion that we need a triangular system. We need to add a third pole to market and government: community.

In some ways the planning system has moved in that direction, particularly with neighbourhood plans and beacons of good practice like community-led development, design charrettes, estate regeneration ballots, programmes like the Big Local funding programme and co-production between residents and other agencies.

To many people though, planning happens between developers and planners behind closed doors, based on local plans in which people aren’t very interested in, and national rules most people have never heard of. Where communities are consulted, the process is often seen as being manipulative and the community is mainly represented by old white retired professional men (yes, that could be me one day!).

What genuine community power brings to the planning process is substantially greater amounts of trust. It also brings a balance to the profit motive of the developer and the wider political interests of the council.

But the transition would be difficult. Many planning authorities and developers, will, indeed currently do, resist such a change. If it were introduced, both would have to learn new skills.

We can already see the better developers starting to recognise that their licence to operate might depend on getting this right. Similarly, the sight of local councils changing hands, as a result of planning proposals or decisions, is making politicians aware of the real and present danger.

So it could happen.

Thank you all so much for your readership over the years and, particularly thank you to those of you who have come up to me, or written, to encourage me. You don’t how much that has meant.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration. He will continue to contribute a monthly column to our sister title PlacemakingResource.


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