Where it all began
Town Planning is not a new phenomenon, let’s be honest its history is long and ancient! The Town and Country Planning Act, which forms the basis of the system that we have today, was introduced in 1947 (albeit there were plenty more pieces of legislation and ideologies that preceded it). Since that time the system has continued to evolve with layer upon layer of amendments to Acts, and various other pieces of legislation, including several high profile ‘U’ turns. The introduction of Regional Strategies, later followed by their revocation being one such example. Then ‘Forward planning’, subsequently met with the Localism Act and further changes to the ‘Development Plan’ process and then there are Neighbourhood Plans..…the list of changes and amendments continues – as fans of the Planning Encyclopaedia will know, or indeed those tasked with updating it!
Despite all of these changes and continuous movement in planning policy and legislation, the actual application process, in reality, has changed little since 1947. Although the red tape and hoops to be leapt through have increased in number, despite constant calls to ‘simplify’ planning.
How it works in Practice
As a practising chartered town planner in the private sector, I often find that a key part of the frustration experienced in planning is due to the lack of understanding of the system and process by local residents, town and parish councils and even committee members. This is often through no fault of their own, rather it is the fault of the system being such an overly-complicated layer cake of legislation and policy. How can we as consultants or developers, expect residents or anyone with no town planning experience to understand a proposal for housing in the open countryside when indeed a consultant must be employed in the first place to lend their expertise and knowledge to prepare the application…if it was simple there would be no need for a consultant!
The public face of town planning needs a make-over, Town Planners no longer fit their past stereotypes and likewise the Planning System needs to change its ways.
What lies ahead?
Around the world there have been some radical pilots employing new technologies to consult with local residents as part of Local Plan preparations. Currently, in England , when a Local Authority is consulting on a new Local Plan they have to follow a number of Regulations and carry out several consultation exercises on lengthy written planning policy text, alongside various maps showing potential allocation sites, with a whole range of evidence base documents, containing the detail you need to be looking at, all of which can ‘handily’ be found on three or four different tabs on the Local Authority’s webpage..…meanwhile in Santa Monica, California, the equivalent of the Local Authority has employed an app called CitySwipe, nicknamed Tinder for Planning, which shows residents images of potential proposals, ranging from city tower blocks to alternative types of street furniture and invites them to swipe left or right depending on whether they are supportive of such a proposal or against. This promotes genuine interest amongst residents rather than bombarding them with flyers and leaflets or using scaremongering tactics publicising proposals to ‘defecate their countryside’.
This app brings planning into real life and allows users to have their say in a format and way that they have come to understand and appreciate as 21st century citizens. It also puts Town Planning on a fun and interactive level, a level on which people might actually want to engage, as it removes the long technical policy wording and simply shows people developments they could have in their neighbourhood. The simplicity of this app is key to its use and success.
Sir Terry Farrell CBE, recently awarded the RTPI Gold Medal, called on the planning profession to embrace the opportunities presented by the continuing technology revolution. Upon accepting the award the architect, planner and urban designer said emerging technologies were set to “transform” the planning profession. Sir Terry said:
“We may get to the point where we don’t have planning committees, instead having decisions on planning applications made through the equivalent of game simulators where you can press a button to decide yes or no.”
The Manchester City Council Neighbourhoods Team are also embracing more modern methods by organising cocktail events to discuss neighbourhood issues with residents in the Castlefield area of the city.
I believe modern, working people simply do not have the time to get involved with traditional public consultations, whether these are in relation to Local Plans or Planning Applications. People cannot be expected to automatically know the planning system and therefore be in a position to read, digest and actually understand even half of the documents involved with a public consultation, or a planning application in order to make a meaningful or material comment.
“We’ve always done it this way…”
Introducing Town Planning into the education system, to my mind, is a no brainer. The sooner people begin to understand the implications of the planning system, how it works, how they can get involved and actually have an impact, the better for all parties; be it local authorities, developers, land promoters or consultants. A basic understanding of the planning system could lead to the quicker preparation and adoption of sound local plans, and could even mean, swifter and more successful determination of planning applications. This is both in terms of permissions being granted, but also removing the need for abortive appeals if the correct decision had been made in the first place; outcomes which would save Local Authorities much needed time, money and resources!
In the UK the logistics of planning basically hasn’t changed since its invention. Major new developments are still announced by an A4 notice tied to a lamppost! Surely there must be a better way? There are reams of different national, local and neighbourhood policies for residents to decipher. Meanwhile time constrained local authority planners are snowed under by the packs of documents submitted as part of planning applications, or the thousands of representations received to a Local Plan consultation.
‘Tinder for Planning’ may not be the solution but surely something can be done to make Planning more attractive and accessible to all. A ‘leaf’ should be taken from other industries through the use of technology to enable policy and legislation to become more digestible and user friendly. Key to this is an appreciation that people do not have time to read through reams of information; a picture speaks a thousand words! I don’t think a planning revolution is upon us, but small steps should be taken to educate more widely on what the planning system is and how it works, so that in turn, in practice the outputs of the system become more efficient for the benefit of all.
If you are seeking a modern planning consultancy to assist with your public consultation, or any other planning related matters, please contact Rebecca at the office on 0161 300 3476 or at email@example.com.