Planning has the tools to address many of the challenges facing young people and their communities, says Helen Hayes MP. It’s vital to make planning a career of choice for those who want to make a difference.
As the only recently practising town planner in Parliament, I’ve had the opportunity since being elected in 2015 to reflect on the profession, the very significant challenges it has faced as a consequence of government funding cuts, and the important role it has to play, both in delivering on some of the biggest practical challenges our country faces, and in helping to rebuild trust in our democratic processes and public services.
Our post-war planning system is a framework for redistribution, for ensuring that development meets the needs of local communities, and for brokering and mitigating the gap between individual private interests and collective community needs.
Local plans safeguard land for particular purposes, including housing, employment, education, and community uses. Our heritage protection regime and national parks safeguard the buildings and spaces that communities value.
Planning policies seek to ensure that across many dimensions of design, from building height to energy performance standards, new buildings take due account of their surrounding community and wider environment.
And our planning system aims to ensure that developers contribute to meeting the needs in the community that will be generated as a consequence of their activity – for example, by funding new schools, GP surgeries and public spaces.
Every community is affected by planning, and planning issues often give rise to the strongest feelings and most vociferous campaigns at local level. Planning-related issues, particularly the housing crisis and climate change, are among the most important facing the UK.
“It is time for planning to step up and play its full part in helping to restore trust in democratic processes”
But our planning system has been at the hard edge of both austerity and government policy over the past eight years, and it has not fared well. A government that on the whole sees planning as another category of red tape to be removed has stripped out many of the more progressive policies – for example, lifetime homes, and zero-carbon homes.
By changing the definition of affordable housing to bear no relationship to either social rents or average incomes; and by introducing viability assessments as a basis for developers to argue that they cannot afford to comply with local policy on affordable housing, the government has created a system which is all too often incapable of delivering against the real needs of local communities.
Community engagement has also been a casualty. Genuine, meaningful engagement on local plan-making, and establishing good standards of pre-application consultation as an expectation of applicants, takes time and resources, and cut-back planning departments have often been left unable to devote the time that is needed to engage communities in a way that builds trust and credibility for proposals, and achieves informal consent from local residents.
At its best, planning is visionary, progressive and aspirational. New towns and garden cities were forged from a comprehensive vision of economically diverse communities living in attractive places, with good-quality, affordable housing to rent and to buy, beautiful open spaces, excellent public services and a wide range of amenities, local ownership of utilities and a high level of economic self-sufficiency.
They were rooted in a strong framework of values – redistribution, environmental stewardship, inclusivity and community.
By contrast, the current government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, launched with a flourish last year but quickly marginalised following controversy about its chair, has no such articulation.
Any attempt at a public discourse on design quality must start by recognising that all design is underpinned by values – design can be inclusive or exclusive, outward focused and community-oriented or inward looking and insular, generous or mean, and it can look to the future or echo the past.
Design quality is also much more than the appearance of buildings once they are completed. Our current planning system, which is relatively weak on building control, incentivises applicants to invest in design quality at the planning application stage, only for some to cost-engineer out much of that quality during the build phase.
The result is that often communities can be sold one scheme at the planning stage, only to be left with something which is a poor reflection of the images used to illustrate the planning application.
The expansion of permitted development rights is also fundamentally undermining our planning system, allowing buildings to be converted from office to residential use with no consultation, no affordable housing contribution, no section 106 agreement and no check on design quality.
Helen Hayes is a former town planner and has been the Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood since 2015. She sits on the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee, and is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Housing and Planning. This article is written in a personal capacity.
Pictured: Helen Hayes
Image credit | IKON