Plan, plan and plan again!

By Sarah Longlands | 14 July 2020

There is a recurring theme in the speeches of ministers following a crisis – that it’s all the fault of the planners.

In his speech on 30 June, Boris Johnson concluded that the ‘newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country’ and that as part of ‘project speed’ the Government was going to ‘bring forward the most radical reforms of our planning system since the Second World War’.

His speech echoed the famous words of Eric Pickles back in 2011 following the property crash when he called the planning system ‘a drag anchor of growth’ and David Cameron when he called planning ‘the enemy of enterprise’.

Since the 70s, successive Governments have been fretting about planning as an obstacle to growth and in doing so, narrowed the debate about planning’s purpose. Because, while efficient administration of planning applications is important, if the outcome we seek is a better planning system which builds good quality homes and helps support prosperity, the question is not – ‘how do we speed up the planning process’ but ‘what is the planning system for’.

In a time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth remembering that planning was once seen as the main weapon in the fight against disease. Planning is not necessarily about doing things faster. It’s about doing things right. It is also about creating decent places for people to live, work and raise their families.

You can build, build, build all you want, but if no one wants to live there, then it’s a waste of time. You can drive economic growth until the cows come home, but if the people living in the cheapest houses don’t see the benefits, then what’s the point? A rising tide does not lift all boats.

Max Lock, the author of the 1946 Middlesbrough Survey and Plan wrote that planning was about ‘human beings and their welfare’. As planning’s purpose has been narrowed to that of a regulator, we’ve forgotten just how important planning can be in creating the conditions for human as well as economic growth.

As the Government’s rhetoric turns towards recovery, if we really want to build back better, creating decent homes and communities in which to live, then good strategic planning is part of the solution, rather than a scapegoat for politicians.

Sarah Longlands is director of IPPR North – @sarahlonglands

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