Putting the P back into Planning

by Alister Scott

This blog uses evidence from recent research work on the urban rural fringe[1] to re-discover a different way forward for English planning. The rediscovery element is important here as we all too often seek the new when we have solutions buried in our vaults from past interventions

Planning Regs Sandcastle CartoonMuch of the present debate about the delivery of economic growth and protection of the countryside is being fought out in the battlefield of the urban-rural fringe. Here at the meeting of town and country where urban and rural land uses, interests and values converge in the daily experience of development proposals, I see a dualism between proponents of urban growth and countryside protectors. We urgently need to move beyond this sterile and media-fuelled debate by a re-examination of what planning is about and what it means on the ground. In the murky political football that now characterises planning policy and decision-making, the soul of planning has become lost.

It is salient to remember that the roots of planning lay with visionaries who saw the need for policy intervention to address the overcrowded insanitary conditions that typified much of the cities of Victorian Britain, linking high-quality living environments with cohesive communities and thriving local economies. Here the virtuous circle between built form, community, health, environment and economy was recognized and championed. Planning was rooted in the principles of social and environmental justice.

However, the pace and incremental nature of recent planning reforms by successive governments have given rise to an institutional landscape characterised by “disintegrated policy”[2], where conflict, protest, alienation, distrust and legal challenge have now become the norm. Rather than trying to dismantle the fundamental freedoms of legal challenge, policy makers should recognise that all is not well with current approaches to planning and decision-making.

Quote Blog 6The use and application of the lens of economic growth as a one-size-fits-all policy shoehorn has grossly distorted the policy landscape to such an extent that anyone who objects is labelled as ‘anti-growth’. In single-minded pursuit of a growth mantra I see a policy-making process increasingly littered with policy-based evidence where planning decisions are made upfront with post-decision justification tools being abused to cherry-pick evidence to support the desired decision. Thus public consultation processes become little more than tokenism and therapy. Issues of uncertainty are dismissed within a powerful rhetoric which is rooted in the short-term economics of GDP and growth requirements, further supported by a powerful coalition of technological-fixers.

Increasingly, scientists have to show demonstrable harm by proposed developments rather than use the precautionary principle as an argument for caution. Further dilution of environmental and sustainable development principles is evident in political concerns about increased regulation and taxes which will increase costs to business and taxpayers, and are therefore dismissed as unacceptable when we face austerity. Yet the true value of nature is forgotten in many decisions – although research has highlighted the value (financially, intrinsic and use) in pollination, flood regulation, improved water quality, food, carbon sequestration, quality of life and health[3].

The current scalar fix on localism as key to planning policy delivery sits uncomfortably with landscape-scale approaches for the management of natural resources. These scalar tensions are exacerbated by the administrative (local authority and agency) silos that hinder collaboration and co-operation, inadvertently leading to disconnects as governance arrangements become increasingly complex. New players such as Local Nature Partnerships and Local Enterprise Partnerships produce separate sectoral strategies at different scales, mushrooming the different strategies and plans that already exist. Crucially, no-one is directing this increasingly disconnected and out-of-tune orchestra, which has no coherent spatial plan or vision.

As a planner I despair at this lack of joined-up strategy, scrutiny and delivery. Good planning is about building creative solutions and visions that link community, place and environment together in a virtuous circle with social and environmental justice at its core. Furthermore, disintegrated and short-term thinking risks the failure of growth and development now needed. Therefore, drawing from our research I propose the following principles which could form the foundations for integrated planning approaches. Significantly, they are not new; but they provide new lenses within which to promote place-making for the future, set within a collaborative planning model:

  • Maximise connections across/between administrative, economic, social and environmental boundaries/agencies within cross sector partnerships.
  • Make decisions at the most relevant scale for the issue being discussed.
  • Embed the value(s) and benefits from nature into decision-making processes.
  • Recognise the impact of uncertainty and use caution appropriately.
  • Manage change to the best long term advantage.
  • Maximise and maintain stakeholder engagement and expertise(s).

Now if all strategies and plans adopted these principles we might have a development orchestra that played some lovely music!

[1] Relu Project Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban fringe.  RES 24-25-0016. http://www.bcu.ac.uk/research/-centres-of-excellence/centre-for-environment-and-society/projects/relu

[2] Scott et al. (2103) Disintegrated development at the rural–urban fringe: Re-connecting spatial planning theory and practice Progress in Planning 83: 1-52

[3] National Ecosystem Assessment. (2011). The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the key findings. Cambridge: UNEP-WCMC.


Alister Scott is Professor of Environmental and Spatial Planning at the Birmingham School of the Built Environment.  He blogs regularly on planning-related issues for the Birmingham Post – see http://blogs.birminghampost.co.uk/news/alister_scott/. Follow him on twitter @bcualisterscott.

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