Learn to love planning

No-one likes planners. Developers think of them as meddling bureaucrats at best, and Stalinist naysayers at worst. Some people resent them for being a barrier to economic growth. A minority hate planners for not allowing enough homes to be built – while simultaneously a majority seem to hate them for allowing homes to be built. Astonishingly, at the peak of the housing bubble in 2007, one in four households opposed a planning application that year. It seems we really are a nation of NIMBYs – or at least, the richer and louder part of the nation is, as Shelter’s research has shown.

Given these contradictory attitudes it’s not surprising that the government found itself in hot water over its proposals for planning reform last year: being caught between the CBI and the National Trust can’t be fun, especially if you regard both as your natural political allies. And the battle over the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has only just started – this one will run and run.

While entertaining, media spats like this generate far more heat than light, and inevitably polarise debate between those who want to preserve our cherished natural heritage and those who want to destroy it for profit – or between selfish NIMBYs and the champions of those in housing need, depending on your viewpoint. This is a shame, as planning is vitally important. Reducing complex issues to binary opposites might suit journalists and those who can’t be bothered to think hard about things, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.

In fact, both sides are right. Like most regulatory systems, the paradoxical problem with planning is that it is both too burdensome and too weak. Too burdensome, because the thousands of pages of rules are spread across hundreds of different documents, requiring countless procedural hoops to be jumped through. Too weak, because it’s still a reactive system that leaves the initiative with the developer and can only encourage positive development by saying ‘no’.

The result is a system that satisfies nobody and doesn’t deliver enough quality or quantity of development. And the response to poor quality development is invariably to add another piece of regulation to the pile. Because the heart of the system is weak, more tinkering always seems necessary. The NPPF attempts to reduce the size of the pile, but hasn’t touched the fundamental flaws in the system that mean the pile can only grow.

Recently the CLG Select Committee agreed with Shelter’s assessment that the lack of detail in the NPPF would actually create more confusion and delay, leading to an expensive and undemocratic system of ‘planning decision by appeal’. In planning, it seems that less is not always more.