The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation wasn’t the Christmas present the sector was hoping for – with further changes alluded to in the announcement indicating the government is nowhere-near finished tinkering with planning policy.
The Levelling Up, Housing And Communities Committee’s inquiry into national planning policy and a recent slew of negative feedback about the state of the profession show the time has come for planners to take control of the narrative around planning.
With over 15 years’ experience in planning and an extensive background delivering notable projects across the public and private sector, including for JLL and CBRE, Caroline Harper now heads up one of the top-ranked planning teams in the country at Be First, the development and regeneration company owned by Barking and Dagenham Council.
I’ll always champion the need for planning to be at the heart of the government’s work, given its fundamental ability to shape everything from our national housing supply to the health and wellbeing of people, communities, and our planet. I’m also keen that the sector is open to challenge and modernising when it needs to.
Perhaps that’s what disappointed me most about the NPPF consultation. Considerably lengthy, when you get down to it, the framework lacks clarity and there are notable gaps – and it’s clear the purpose of planning remains deeply misunderstood. It’s also a shamefully missed opportunity to bring the system into the 2020s (maybe even the 2010s) when it comes to digital capability.
The consultation states people need to know that developments will be ‘beautiful and accompanied by the right infrastructure’. I can’t help but think that sounds deliberately vague. There’s also little detail on how the new supplementary plans – the replacement for SPDs – will work in conjunction with local plans, although not having to go through an examination process should help cut some of the bureaucracy and speed things up.
Lack of clarity is what has led us to this position – the absence spurs a tendency towards over-regulation and in turn slow delivery. It puts private and public planners at odds with each other over who is ‘the good guy’, and somewhere in the middle there is general confusion about just what it is that planning is meant to deliver.
It’s this confusion that leads to the negative public and political discourse about planning and that the system is broken. I disagree. It’s not perfect but if you view it through the right lens, it can help you deliver significant change.Here in Barking and Dagenham it’s being used to great effect for local residents and communities, and we have one of the best records in delivering affordable housing in the country.
The onus is on us who know planning best to act as its champions – not leave the reputation of the sector in the hands of people with superficial knowledge about what it is that we really do as a profession.
But as a profession, this is where we fall down. I am intensely passionate about planning and its potential as a tool for positive change; an enabler, that helps us to address a wide range of issues, from climate change to crime, when used properly. However, too many people see planning asan obstacle, something for people to ‘get past’ before they can realise their ambitions, rather than a tool that works as part of a wider ecosystem.
The government’s proposed changes, at a time when many local plans are still not agreed, will ultimately slow down housebuilding. With an estimated shortage of 1.5 million homes, I’m not sure it’s something we can afford to stall on.
We’ve heard many promises on housing and we’ve seen the introduction of more retirement villages in the last 20 years – we need more consideration about how we build and integrate homes for people who are living longer into our communities, to combat isolation and promote healthier lifestyles.
We also need to do more to help younger generations who are finding themselves priced out of home ownership and, increasingly, the rental market.
I was disappointed there was no mention of the digital reforms which Gove has previously championed and would help bring the profession into the modern age – supporting planners and residents to process applications quicker, while providing a more realistic understanding of what homes, buildings and new communities will look like once they are in place.
This was a missed opportunity.
More concerning was the implication that we will struggle to reach even a broad consensus that will help to drive plans and projects forward to deliver for residents and communities around the country.
That is how we have ended up here, with yet another government consultation on planning that, while hefty, does little more than tinker round the edges, bringing more confusion than clarity.
As leaders we need to do more to challenge the perceptions around planning – including how we think it needs to work from a professional standpoint.
Most planners come into the profession because they want to positively influence the places we live in and care about; but we need to make this fit into people’s lifestyles outside of work.
It pains me to say it, but we’re not known for new, innovative ways of working. And it’s disappointing to see planners not embracing the full potential that hybrid, remote, condensed – maybe even part time working can bring. It opens a much wider talent pool and for the public sector especially, attract more people using flexible benefits where it can’t compete on salary.
I manage a hybrid team and hold more stock in sitting in a coffee shop in the place your application will impact, so you can understand the people and the place and what it needs, than being in the office.
I also strongly believe that if people are losing their sense of purpose or not getting the right training and mentoring opportunities then this is a management, rather than a working from home problem.
One big step we could take to attract more people into planning is review the apprenticeship system. Should it take as long to become a planner as it does to become a qualified doctor?
But that’s a whole other conversation. For now, let me conclude by saying that for too long we’ve let well-meaning politicians, armchair critics and NIMBYs steer the national conversation around planning.
We’re long overdue a reset.
And a move into the current century; especially if we want to attract more people into planning .