We must make the local plan system fit for purpose, by Graeme Bell

On 11 June 1920 a plan was produced for “a town designed for healthy living”. As we struggle with coronavirus and what a post-Covid environment might look like, healthy living sounds like an idea whose time has come again.

A century ago, the proposal was for a town named Welwyn Garden City, the second garden city in the world and the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard.

The garden city movement was nothing if not holistic in its thinking that a town needed more than just roads and buildings; beauty, play, good jobs, learning and spiritual refreshment were as important to foster “a good life in an honest place”.

To design and masterplan this new garden city, Howard and the newly incorporated Welwyn Garden City appointed Louis Emanuel Jean Guy de Savoie- Carignan de Soissons, a 30-year-old Canadian architect for whom this was his first major commission.

After spending time in the Flanders trenches, Louis de Soissons was as passionate as Howard about the need to create a better world. De Soissons started work on 26 April 1920, and in a little over six weeks he produced his town plan, a scheme that is clearly recognisable on the ground today. How do we, planners of the hi-tech 21st century, feel about that for performance?

Sceptics will say that he didn’t have to worry about upsetting NIMBYs, that he had an ‘easy’ greenfield site and that he wasn’t hidebound by rules and regulations. Fair points, but the high level of competence in his plan, which was turned out in less time than a lockdown, is breath-taking. It is a model of sustainable development that we would be proud of today.

Contrast that plan-making performance to our present, sophisticated approach honed from a century of professional experience. Find me anyone – forward planner, councillor, developer, inspector, lawyer or member of the public – who thinks the local plan experience is anything other than an expensive, time-consuming and opaque grind.

Many will reasonably point to the changes of legislation, shifting targets, economic disruptions and lack of proper resourcing as responsible for rendering local planning dysfunctional. The imperative will always be to keep the wheels on development management at the expense of everything else. If a plan is a year late, two years, ten years, what’s a little more slippage? Reasons for further delays aren’t difficult to find. And with some notable exceptions, largely in the larger authorities with a greater critical mass, many councils are so poor at injecting pace, flair and inclusivity into the forward planning process that they present an open goal to successive governments who criticise poor performance.

In a post-Covid world we will still have a housing crisis, town centres searching for a new role and lowcarbon solutions required for connectivity. Many of these issues would have been familiar to de Soissons. A century on, let’s show we haven’t lost the passion. We must get total plan coverage in place if we are to properly serve our communities and shape and build a better Britain. No excuses, no more delays, time is of the essence.

Graeme Bell OBE is a former president of the Planning Officers Society and a trustee of the Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation

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