The 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week was attended by over 400 people keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. Being held just a few days after the UK’s Brexit vote, there was a predictable inevitability when every speaker prefaced their talk with the caveat ‘of course everything is uncertain now’. A consistent message across the day however was that regardless of the political uncertainty, the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.
While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.
Planning great places
Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.
Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.
Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. The benefits of having one integrated strategy is that it sets a vision for ‘place’ that all departments can mobilise behind. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.
Delivering housing growth
Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. A number of speakers argued that direct intervention in the housing market, for example through local housing companies or councils buying sites, was becoming a necessity. Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, pointed out that central government interventions have been focused on the consumer end of the market (for example, Starter Homes) rather than on delivering development sites and land.
Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, also suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.
The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.
What if cities could change our world?
While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.
Alfonso Vegara, of Fundación Metropóli, describing the rejuvenation of Bilbao, suggested that successful planning needs to recognise the new scale of cities and economic development. The interconnections mean that growth corridors or city regions are only going to become more important. Successful economic growth will be dependent on retaining and attracting talent and skills in polycentric areas, and strategic planning needs to take this into account. The successful regeneration of Bilbao “was not a miracle, but the result of vision and leadership.”
This theme was also reflected in Ed Cox’s session on the RTPI’s work with IPPR on the need for an integrated, spatial approach to growing the economy in the North of England. Producing a vision for prosperity will depend on addressing key structural challenges. Maximising opportunities within an interconnected metropolitan region needs to recognise the importance of both cities and their hinterlands. It was also argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ ambition will fail if citizens aren’t helped to feel engaged economically, politically and socially.
A rallying cry for leadership
There has been a trend in recent years for the planning system to be portrayed as a barrier and a bureaucratic obstacle which is getting in the way of growth. One speaker quoted Joseph Konvitz saying “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.
As a profession, planners are trained to take a holistic view. They operate at the junction between politics, finance and community. And they are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.
The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.
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