Response by Professor Patsy Healy
Transforming the ‘culture’ of planning practice
Many of us in the planning community support the general direction of the ‘Localism’ initiative. Local authorities and the communities they serve deserve to have more control and a greater say in what happens in their areas. But at issue is what needs to be in place – in law, in procedures, in supporting resources and in expertise – to realise the potential of this shift. Such a shift, if accomplished, would surely be a ‘fundamental’ one, given the over-centralisation of the English government system. But this does not necessarily imply a ‘fundamental change’ in planning law and procedure. The call for ‘fundamental change’ in the system has been repeated at regular intervals over the past few years. So we need to ask why it has not happened.
Our experience over the past half century is that the British planning system, in its legal arrangements and basic structure, is quite adaptable to many different situations. The problems it has faced lie much more in the wider context in which it has been put to work, in the ‘culture of practice’ which has grown up within and around the formal system. The arenas of the system – the making of strategies and plans, the debates and formal inquiry processes about plan content and about specific decisions – have provided institutional sites where we, as a society, have had to work out the tensions between economic, social and environmental priorities as they play out in particular places. No planning system can circumvent these tensions. As the CPRE has underlined in its recent report1, what needs to be transformed is the way we think about planning activity and the planning system – what it is all for and how it should work, what we expect from the practices associated with such activity, and how all of us – citizens, local residents, and many others with a ‘stake’ in the activity – expect to be involved.
Those of us in the ‘planning community’2 have known for a good while what has gone wrong. The ‘planning project’ which led in the mid-20th C to the basic parameters of the system we now have, had, by the end of the century, got narrowed down into a practice which had become:
- Over-regulatory and procedurally complex
- Focused on struggles over sites, not the future qualities of places
- Dominated by ‘Barons’ and ‘Big Beasts’ – large companies, big public agencies, large NGOs (including CPRE), etc;
- Informed and managed by technical experts and the ‘knowledge’ they mobilised, not ‘local knowledge’
- Driven from the ‘top’ in a hierarchical way
- Split up through the functional organisation government departments
- Reinforcing the widespread ‘them’ against ‘us’ tensions in Britain today
In all of this, the pro-active focus of planning activity on sustaining and creating better places – better in terms of quality, future sustainability and supportive of well-being, got lost3. Many of us – planners, lobby groups, academics, politicians, policy advisers, activist campaigners, etc – have been trying to recover this pro-active, place-focused energy. The CPRE’s contribution has especially been about promoting attention to the qualities of our landscapes, and the relation between settlements and our ‘countryside’.
But, in our crowded island, in a context of considerable instability in the economic and environmental relations in which we as a nation are situated, and given how varied we all are, a pro-active focus has to pay attention to the conflicting ‘visions’ we have about place qualities and futures. Most of the time, such conflict helps to work out what is ‘at stake’, and also to throw up new ideas. But planning processes have to provide the time and space to have debates about what kind of qualities and futures should get prioritised, and arenas have to be available for resolving conflicts which cannot be negotiated and argued away. We are very fortunate in the UK in having a very well-respected Planning Inspectorate, which has kept many such conflicts out of the formal legal arena. But it is also important to give time for discussion about difficult issues, many of which are likely to involve not just different views within a local area, but relate to the impacts of what happens in one area on another, or how to accommodate an area-wide or national priority with local aspirations. Neglect of such discussion may exacerbate and escalate conflict rather than reduce its incidence.
So those of us struggling for a more pro-active focus in the way the planning system gets ‘put to work’ have been trying to evolve a ‘planning culture’ in which:
- Regulations and procedures serve, but do not dominate the realisation of our ideas about place futures
- Attention is focused in a holistic way on place qualities and futures
- All those with a stake have an input, and those most affected can make a real and effective contribution
- this means, especially now, much more local involvement and empowerment, but with careful attention to ‘checks and balances’, especially in relation to who has rights to ‘challenge’ a planning decision of strategy
- Local knowledge is melded productively with technical expertise and systematic knowledge. CPRE members, among others, have a good deal of experience in this work
- Different government sectors and agencies focus their attention on the spatial dimensions and impacts of their programmes and projects.
- This should improve ‘co-ordination’ and help to ‘integrate’ their activities into local aspirations and visions about place qualities.
- Hierarchical thinking and acting is replaced by ‘co-production’, in which the programmes and priorities of different stakeholders, including different levels of government and companies, evolve interactively with each other.
- We should not be naïve about the dangers of ‘over-localism’, yet we should avoid drifting into re-inventing hierarchy.
So at issue is how to transform ‘mindsets’ – the ‘cultures of practice’ – which shape what local planning authorities think and do, but also how the wider society imagines what they do. As Minister Clark has said earlier, the planning system has become very tied into people’s resentment and distrust of the ‘them’ who seem to impose on ‘us’ all the time. Changing this will take a long time. Laws and the flow of public resources can be changed in a timescale of a year or so. It is much more difficult to change cultures and practices – probably needing a timescale of a generation or more. And such changes need to be supported by wider shifts in the balance of power and the flows of resources between different levels of government and agencies.
In encouraging local planning authorities and local residents to become more collaborative and engaged, it therefore is important to recognise that many of the difficulties of realising local community aspirations as well as national priorities have not been lodged inside planning legislation, although it is important to get some things right.
Citizens will be acutely critical if the ‘Big Beasts’ and ‘Barons’ are allowed to ‘run riot’ through the system. They will become cynical if too many options they feel should be considered are ‘closed off’ by requirements for conformity with higher tier policies. They will be frustrated if resources for taking more local initiatives are denied them. Such cynicism and frustration would create a climate in which it is more, not less, difficult to negotiate how local ‘visions’ can be combined with wider considerations. So careful attention is needed to:
- The expectations and market responses of private sector actors – particularly landowners and developers; the ‘lets have some certainty’ issue.
- The funding of initiatives and projects, and making sure that there are resources which trickle out to sustain all kinds of community initiatives, as well as providing for the realisation of major projects.
- The distribution of rights to challenge decisions in the system.
- Making sure that planning processes and decisions are as open, transparent and well-argued as possible, to improve and sustain overall confidence in the fairness of the system, given the intense conflicts which are often to be found among those who share a ‘place’ together
- Getting the stakeholders to get involved. It is not just local residents who need to work together to develop ideas about place futures – many other agencies/actors at diverse scales are likely to have a role in unlocking or blocking a local aspiration;
- Building a ‘strategic’ level to deal with key spatial issues which cut across local authority areas – large infrastructures; energy and mineral production issues; ’green structure’; natural heritage conservation; housing markets
- Resisting persistent practices of hierarchy and centralism, despite contrary rhetorics – not a nested hierarchy of plans and strategies, but strategies at different levels/around different issues which interlock and co-evolve.
- The form and language of the plans and strategies that get produced in the system, to make sure that the few things that need to be ‘fixed’ are clearly evident and supported with clear reasoning, without excessively constraining how place futures emerge.
The struggle for creating a new planning culture – which will help realise people’s aspirations about future qualities of places where they live, work, visit and which they care about, while sustaining the qualities of the worlds we and future generations share – is part of a much wider project of striving for a richer, more democratic polity. The planning field has a key role in this. But the struggle needs to proceed with careful attention to the complexities of the issues to be faced, the wider political and economic context, and the diversity of communities and contexts across the country. What is needed in the formal parts of the planning system is ‘appropriate’ change, rather than ‘fundamental’ change, while a climate needs to be fostered which will encourage creative learning through which new practices and mindsets can emerge.
Finally, what role does a Minister have in pushing along a changed planning culture and practice? A push to a greater ‘localism’ may suggest that the national role in the planning system might eventually ‘wither away’. But international experience tells us that most planning systems where power was formally given to the very local level have had to create higher levels of decision-making to deal with spatial issues which relate to a wider area, such as a city region or, for major transport infrastructures, a nation or a transnational scale. So, for now and into the future, we need national government attention to:
- Creating an enabling framework to encourage a focus on place qualities and spatial connectivities and impacts at all levels and in all arenas of government. Does the Localism Bill really deliver this yet?
- The national issues that really matter – especially with respect to critical assets and infrastructures, to environmental challenges and responsibilities and also to distributive issues.
- Encouraging holistic understanding of place qualities and the quality of life ‘in places, not just a focus on a single issue, such as ‘flood protection’ or ‘economic growth’. The CPRE has produced several reports recently about the development of such a focus.
- Providing knowledge and information, and encouraging discussion and debate around often difficult issues about place futures, rather than a rhetorics of ‘exhortation’ and ‘edict’;
- The flow of resources – public, private, NGOs etc – and how these impact on the capacity at national, intermediate and local levels to promote and realise plans and strategies for future place qualities
1 See CPRE 2026: A Vision for the Countryside
2 By which I mean not just ‘RTPI planners’, but all those activists, NGOs, businesses, lawyers, consultants and government departments which get involved in planning activity on a regular basis.
3 See my arguments in Making Better Places (Healey, P. 2010, London, Palgrave Macmillan).