Communities, local authorities and developers working together – wouldn’t that be something?

It takes a particularly eagled-eyed parliamentarian to pick out a gem from the list of House of Lords Private Members Bills. Along with the ‘Regulation of Political Opinion’ Bill (wouldn’t that be something?) and the ‘Chancel Repairs’ Bill (bound to be a big job), was Lord Lexden’s ‘Direct Planning (Pilot)’ Bill.

Bear with me, this is important. This short Bill, if enacted, could pave the way for formalising what I believe should have been happening for a long time in planning. One of its fundamental tenets is that communities acting as neighbourhood forums or a community organisation within designated neighbourhood areas should be empowered to act more directly in developing the planning policy within those areas.

I don’t intend to go into all the aspects of the Bill, short as it may be. For me, the key element is the provision it would make for ‘charrettes’. A charrette, in this context, means “a collaborative series of meetings held over a short period of time (the Bill specifies less than four weeks) between those who have an interest in development in a designated area including but not limited to developers, architects, residents, local businesses and community groups and unincorporated associations, for the purpose of developing and agreeing to the master plan for a particular development.”

In short, this requires local authorities and developers to get round the table with communities and plan together. I am not sure what I find more incredible – that the wider world is waking up to the need for collaborative planning or that it requires a member of the House of Lords to try and bring it into force through a Bill.

How has it come to this?

There is a growing belief in planning – being put forward by such respected bodies as the Town and Country Planning Association – that the profession has moved further and further away from the very reasons why it was established in the first place, namely to provide, in a land use context, for the needs of society as a whole. Vested interests of landowners, developers and investors have strangled the system so that now we are regularly seeing developers successfully arguing that their development site in the South East simply can’t afford to provide any affordable housing without taking away an unacceptably large proportion of their profit. More and more people are calling for a change and a return to planning for the greater good. ‘Social justice’ is a phrase being increasingly used, perhaps borne out of years of austerity and what that time has spawned, but certainly not in my view, hyperbole.

Couple this with the previous Coalition Government’s push for localism in planning, being continued by the new Tory administration, and we are seeing a collision course being set. How are they going to plan to deal with the housing crisis (mainly an issue of supply) in a way that doesn’t alienate large parts of their voter heartland that want to prepare plans for their communities but differ in their view of what is and isn’t right? Of course we all know that it is those same voter heartlands where housing demand is highest.

As with all differences of opinion, the only solution is to have proper dialogue. Yet for years, planning has been done behind closed doors by local authorities and developers, with communities usually the ones frozen out – two is company, three is most definitely a crowd. ‘Consultation’ is now a dirty word, the developer ‘wiki’ definition probably being ‘box ticking exercise before we do want we want anyway’. But communities are increasingly being empowered, not just through legislative opportunities such as neighbourhood planning but also through the experience of austerity – the adage about sometimes needing to reach the bottom has sadly applied to many communities but they are using that experience to fight back. For many others, their experience has been gathered whilst attending those consultation events, faced by the shiny PR consultant appointed by the developer, looking earnest (it’s a combination of the eyes and eyebrows) whilst simultaneously trying not to get caught looking at the clock.

So the call is for collaboration. To get community, developer and local authority round the table. To be fair, there are growing numbers of developers that have either seen the benefit of properly engaging with communities already or have been burned by the experience of ignoring their views, resulting in lengthy, costly and sometimes ultimately unsuccessful attempts to secure planning permission for their proposals. On the other side of the triangular fence, local authorities are struggling to make miniscule staff resources stretch a long way. In the last few weeks I have come across two authorities that are losing half their team of seemingly disillusioned planners almost overnight. Yet all the while, Central Government is persistently reminding them of their duty to deliver, deliver, deliver. (‘There’s a housing crisis on and planning is the main cause’…oh please…) Taking the path of least resistance is usually the only option that appears palatable to them, and it is communities that are frozen out as a result.

So whether Lord Lexden’s Private Members Bill is successful or not – and success rates for such bills are generally pretty low – it is vital that the ethos that the Bill espouses is spread widely. We really don’t need an Act of Parliament to be able to get developers, local authorities and communities round the table. We need a collective commitment and an understanding that this can result on a far more positive outcome than the present system creates, one that festers, lingers, creates resentment and ultimately does little to further ‘community’ through place making.

Yes, such a commitment needs to be supported by resources. Charrettes, or whatever alternative approach is used to get people round a table with a requirement to reach consensus, need to be independently facilitated. Well, developers have money and the cost of this is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of having to appeal a refusal of planning permission and the eye-wateringly expensive barristers it requires (which is why seemingly every developer always seeks a cost award against a Council at appeal). Lord Lexen’s Bill suggests that Central Government could pay for it, or alternatively that local authorities could put money aside for it from their planning budgets. The latter certainly may seem less likely at the moment but if results are seen from these activities then the view may soon change. The £2m programme by Central Government that is suggested in the Bill is a drop in the ocean compared to the £22.5 million programme currently being rolled out which provides support for neighbourhood planning but also indirectly serves to bring many of the communities preparing them into direct conflict with developers and local authorities…and back to square one we go.

This does work though. There are examples of success with the charrette approach. Community group ‘Look! St Albans’ has recently completed a series of facilitated public design charrettes. There are other examples out there where the enlightened are blazing a trail on this. But it is up to all of us – professionals and communities – to push this opportunity as hard as we can. The opportunities open to communities today through neighbourhood planning and other vehicles are considerable but ultimately planning is about land-use and successful communities are about place. If we are unable to engage with the land interests in our communities and the local planning authorities that provide the framework for change, then we will fail to make our places work for us as well as they could. And then the true debate starts, what is planning actually for?

Written by Navigus Blog