Why citizens need to be at the heart of planning and place-making

Peter Geraghty

It never ceases to amaze me that when government’s engage in what they often refer to as planning reform the focus is on numeric outputs. For example, how many applications are determined, how quickly are decisions made, how many local plans have been adopted, how many houses are built. Measures are then introduced to ‘improve’ the speed of decision-making, ‘simplify’ processes and rationalise community engagement. 

Don’t get me wrong, I agree metrics are important but this focus on outputs misses a fundamental issue; the consequences of which are there for anyone to see in plain sight. Too many of the outputs of the planning systems in the British Isles are mediocre and sub-optimal. The ghost housing estates, soulless retail parks accessible only by car, the proliferation of ill-considered telecommunications paraphernalia or characterless commercial buildings are all legacies of the market driven approach to planning prevailing in the British Isles. As Professor Adams has said in a 2014 report[1] on the value of planning: ‘We desperately need to improve the quality of this debate [on the value of planning] by thinking about the costs and benefits of planning in the round and seeing what can be done to produce greater benefits from planning at less cost.’ 

It is regrettable that the national debate is still so narrowly focussed. As recently as July 2015, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer described the planning system as being ‘regarded by many as one of the most significant constraints facing the economy, bringing delay and inflexibility’. He went on to say that the country’s planning system creates the 'slow, expensive and uncertain process' that reduces the appetite to build. The response has increasingly been to remove planning powers from local government and pare back public engagement. The UK Housing and Planning Act 2016 has provisions to allow intervention by the Secretary of State over the production of local plans and introduces the concept of planning ‘permission in principle’ for housing as well as placing a general duty on authorities to promote the supply of starter homes. The UK government intends to go further with a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, which will introduce a delivery test on local authorities, to ensure delivery of homes set out in local plans and a ‘planning guarantee’ in respect of the time that planning applications spend with decision-makers.

In a similar vein the Irish Government published ‘Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ on the 19th July 2016; this plan includes a proposal for applications for 100 dwellings or more to be submitted direct to An Bord Pleanála.

My contention is that rather than focusing on process and metrics the attention should be on the quality of outcomes – what is now referred to as place-making. There should be more engagement with communities rather than less. We should not accept the quality of design and public realm that is all too prevalent in our towns, cities and countryside. Engagement with citizens is vital to the sustainable development process and to dispelling the misconceptions about planning and its objectives. In the rush to develop we are in danger of engaging in tokenism or even worse. Urban activist and journalist Jane Jacobs advocated a place-based, community-centred approach to urban planning recognising that towns and cities were more than a collection of buildings – they are the backdrop to everyday life and experience. As she said in her 1961 book Death and Life of Great American Cities: 'Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.'

Citizens need to be placed at the heart of planning and place-making having an equivalent standing to developers and landowners. In a poll commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute to mark its centenary in 2014[2],  an overwhelming majority of the public (79%) want a greater say over the development of their communities.  The survey identified that 59% of people feel they don’t have enough say in how their local area develops on issues such as housing, transport, shops and amenities. In another finding 79% of respondents supported the view that their community needs a stronger voice in planning rather than planning decisions being left more to developers. This may mean in some cases development proposals take longer to come to fruition but it is surely better that the right development happens in the right location and in a timely way, than the suboptimal solutions society is increasingly expected to accept. What matters is outcomes not outputs. As past president of the IPI, Gerry Walker, said as far back as 1982: ‘planning [in Ireland] has failed because we have always stopped short of fully and publically committing ourselves to taking the sometimes harsh actions necessary to achieve our social, economic and physical growth’. This national lack of ambition for planning in the UK and Ireland is harming the national interest by failing to deliver the quality homes that are needed, producing mediocre public realm and failing to provide the necessary infrastructure. There has to be a fundamental shift in approach. We can no longer rely solely on elected representatives to be the prime mediators in the development process regardless of democratic mandate. We need a community-centred approach to planning as advocated by Jacobs but appropriate to the twenty-first century. Citizens need to be able to play a greater and more direct role and we, as planning professionals, must clearly identify and distil for those affected by development the value and contribution planning plays in securing a sustainable future. 

There is an opportunity to take charge of the debate and show how planning is transformational and can improve the lives of people by engaging in genuine place-making. We cannot leave it to those with a lack of ambition for planning, politicians or the popular press to articulate what planning is about and what it can achieve. Now is the time to commit ourselves to taking those actions necessary to achieve our social, economic and physical growth.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of their employer or the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy.

Dr Peter Geraghty is Head of Planning and Transport at Southend Borough Council and is a past president of the RTPI. He tweets @planitpres.

[1] D. Adams & C. Watkins, The Value of Planning, RTPI Research Report No. 5, (June, 2014). 

[2] http://www.rtpi.org.uk/briefing-room/news-releases/2014/november/centenary-poll-findings-infographics/ 


Peter Geraghty
Head of Planning, Southend Borough Council