Planning once again has potential to be powerful

Miliband's preoccupation with community approval was a theme throughout his speech on housing, says Kelvin MacDonald.

Communities and local government minister David Miliband made his first speech about housing in July. His preoccupation with community empowerment rang through the speech as it has in many of his public utterances.

Phrases such as "housing markets that put power in the hands of individuals" and "housing markets that are the allies of aspiration and social justice" are powerful stuff. However, of more immediate interest to the RTPI is that this was his first mention of planning. Once again, it is potentially powerful.

Miliband was talking about the strategic role of local authorities in housing. Interestingly, to him this role begins with planning. "The strategic role of the local authority starts from its ability to look at land-use in an area and the operation of the housing market across all tenures.

In other words, to be a custodian of the community and not just a custodian of some of its housing," he said.

It is clear from Miliband's other speeches that he has a great knowledge of the historical roots of policy. In this vein it is tempting to compare the view that strategy focuses on the use of land with the 1944 white paper on the control of land-use that talked of health, education, employment and housing and stated: "All these related parts of a single reconstruction programme involve the use of land and it is essential that their various claims on land should be so harmonised as to ensure for the people of this country the greatest possible measure of well-being and national prosperity".

However, we are a long way yet from recapturing such a vision. It is clear from Miliband's other speeches that however powerful he sees planning in housing delivery, it has yet to take centre stage in his almost messianic belief in empowerment and what he calls civic pride. Those who can see the potential of the updated system to be both integrated and inclusive, in the words of the RTPI's New Vision, can also see the central role that spatial planning can play in community engagement.

It is true that Miliband has got it right on some of the other aspects of spatial planning in that it goes far beyond simply allocating land and stretches deep into implementation. As he said in July: "The strategic role is about utilising planning powers to ensure that supply keeps pace with demand, about delivering on housing plans, about chasing up developers who sit on land after planning permission has been granted and about ensuring that housing investment is matched with investment in infrastructure and public services by working with public services and developers."

We now need to extend that vision to community empowerment. Planning aid has demonstrated both the way in which development and planning decisions are central to the future of communities and the ways in which communities becoming engaged in such decisions can have a wider effect in other aspects of civic life. To complement the work being done by planning aid services, the RTPI has embarked on preparing guidance for the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit on the interrelationships between community strategies, local strategic partnerships, local area agreements and the planning system.

Such relationships are complex and it is relevant that the RTPI has been chosen to carry out this task. Unless we get these relationships right in practice, not only will planning fail to take its proper place in the civic pride agenda, but communities will fail to benefit from the cohesive approach that planning brings.

Miliband is given to quoting inspirational sources in his speeches. We will know that planning has arrived when he starts quoting from the New Vision and starts putting planning at the heart of his own aspirations for communities.

- Kelvin MacDonald is director of policy and practice at the RTPI.

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