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Time for change and time to plan

Gavin Parker
By Gavin Parker
23rd June 2024

Many have argued that planning reform is needed. Indeed alterations, adjustments and tweaks to planning policy and governance have been applied almost without pause over the past 14 years.

As we move towards the general election, a rather different consensus is now forming around proper resourcing and learning from the post-2010 experiments of deregulation and rescaling. Some changes may well stick from this period, with a form of neighbourhood planning being a case in point, and there are signs from both major political parties that more change is on the way; it therefore seems likely that strategic planning will make a welcome return.

Better planning

Given the above, this piece is less about the organs of planning and more about what we are looking for out of a planning system in England in its makeup and organisation. To that end a question is prompted: what outcomes are desired from planning? And, therefore, what criteria are useful to aid better planning, rather than simply quicker planning?

Some of my recent work has highlighted how time has been used and manipulated in planning in England and is most clearly manifested in the project speed agenda. For CPRE and indeed for communities across England, the most far-reaching proposal is to set a 30-month timeframe for local plan production. Many local authorities are struggling to get their planning teams up to full strength, and local communities need more volunteers to engage with local plans. Such an arbitrary and ambitious timescale is likely to favour well-resourced big developers at the expense of the general public.

The current timescape of planning practice in England can propel decision makers to hasten practices under the assumption that speed is required for economic growth, yet this can easily erode public interest considerations, community participation and trust. As time is squeezed, there is a real danger our space for deliberation is slimmed back or removed.

Setting the right pace

I have seen planning both misrepresented and undervalued on the one hand, and used as a means to deliver more and more objectives on the other. All this reinforces the view that planning is critical to prosperous, sustainable futures and there are different and arguably better ways of organising ourselves. In Scotland a different tack has already been taken – the improvement service there have unveiled a twelve-point set of criteria with which to guide assessment of planning activity, and notably speed does not feature across the main headings of ‘People, Culture, Tools, Engage and Place’. Instead, and as I have argued elsewhere, there are demonstrable benefits of ‘slow planning’ for key participants, such as for enabling community participation and long-term sustainable development.

Best practice in Scotland

Looking north, we may wonder if the Scots have seemingly embraced an idea I have been working on – the principle of ‘proper time’ – and woven this into planning practice. Thus far it has not prevented needed development north of the border, with 23,500 homes completed in Scotland in 2023 compared to 175,000 in England, despite England having a population ten times greater. In short, we need ‘proper time for proper planning’. This is an approach which centres on a more considered, time-aware approach to practice, one which considers the impacts of time as a resource on all involved in planning, including rural communities.

The development of ‘proper’ planning features should not only consider deceleration but also improved resources, tools, institutional structures and clear organising principles. This should move away from standard deadlines and the near obsession with development over a set time, focusing instead on need, quality and appropriateness to the complexity of the project or issues under consideration. Benefits here include developing greater trust amongst the public and instilling more confidence in local politicians to get behind necessary and quality development.

Planning with purpose

To conclude, this orientation of proper planning behoves policy makers to work towards purposive aims of planning to be realised democratically and ensure that quality of life is improved, inequalities addressed, healthy outcomes fostered and the environment enhanced. This appears to align well with CPRE’s manifesto call to ‘Make community voices count in what-goes-where decisions’ and ‘enhance community involvement in the planning system through improved use of local plans and expanding neighbourhood planning and requirements on developers to consult the local community before submitting large planning applications.’

About the author

Gavin Parker is Professor of Planning at the University of Reading and he has recently published a book on the theme of time: ‘Slow Planning? Timescapes, power and democracy’, with his colleague Dr Mark Dobson. The views expressed here are personal. The first chapter is free to download.

Aerial view of a Brownfield site ready for construction work West Midlands Uk
Sophie Davies / Alamy


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