Welsh planners spread the word on development management benefit

Experience in Wales has demonstrated that the shift to development management has allowed planning departments to focus on local issues and create a sense of place for communities, Rynd Smith discovers.

For some planners, using the term development management instead of development control reflects nothing more profound than managerialist fashion. But for an increasing number of organisations, including the RTPI, this change of language points to something deeper deserving further examination. An RTPI Cymru conference in Llandrindod Wells aimed to do just that.

The fact that the conference was held in mid Wales provides an indication of the significance of the change. When an idea like development management is found from Caithness to Ceredigion and Cornwall, it becomes clear that it reflects deeper fundamentals. In Powys County Council's offices, planners from all over Wales came to some interesting conclusions.

The Welsh Assembly Government provided a pragmatic assessment of the change as reflecting the need for planning to deliver outcomes. This is demonstrated as linking from plan-making and policy to create places for real people. The implication for current planning reforms points to two things - better and slimmer local development plans.

Simpler plans would be based on evidence that says important things about the nature of places and change. This would require a close integration between development plan and development management professionals, ensuring that plan policies avoid reiterating government policies. It would pick up the genuinely local issues, about which the practice of development management offers intelligence.

The Planning Inspectorate focused on the roll-out of sound plans, making the point that once in place, development management processes can rely on them and expect to see the policies applied in appeals.

Vale of Glamorgan Council provided insights into the practical moves it has made to deliver the more positive, evidence-based and plan-driven approach. The development management function has been divided into area teams, enabling staff to focus on the relationship between places and the particular local policies designed to reinforce sense of place.

They focus on the building of partnerships around major projects and proposals. This has led to a re-emergence of proactive planning brief preparation as the basis for a dialogue between landowners, developers and local communities.

The council sees its development management performance improving as a result, alongside growing acknowledgement from stakeholders that it is providing a high-quality service. In short, good, proactive, positive and partnership based development management appear to offer a win-win situation, where the value of planners' contributions is equally perceived by applicants and third parties alike.

Interestingly, to achieve these outcomes the authority has had to spend more on the delivery of its planning services than before. However, improved results have in turn fed back evidence that this is money well spent.

Drawing all of these strands together for the RTPI, the change in language from development control to development management is evidence of a positive culture change throughout planning practice in the UK and beyond.

This is most simply summarised as planners using their core skills to integrate their activities, from policy-making to implementation through decision-making and enforcement to monitoring. It is evidence too that the consumers of planning, be they applicants or broader communities, value what we do and see us as agents of positive change, as distinct from presiding over disjointedly incremental diminutions in the quality of our environment or indeed of our lives.

However, not all planners yet perceive the changes as beneficial. In a local government context, chief executives and non-planning strategic directors do not necessarily see how this new positive and joined-up way of thinking has made planning one of the most valuable elements in their toolbox in delivering for their place. Planners and authorities who have embraced the new ways of working therefore need to join with the Vale of Glamorgan to evangelise the benefits.

- Rynd Smith is RTPI policy director. For more information about the conference, please visit www.rtpi.org.uk/item/1990/23/5/3.

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