Planning Matters: The quest for simplicity

February 02 2020
Planning Matters: The quest for simplicity

With Chris Gosling

PLANNING is unfortunately a complicated business, both in theory and in practice. A recent example has stemmed from a report that concluded that nearly 200 housing developments across the country should not have been approved, as they were poorly designed and lacked the necessary infrastructure. The coverage of this was correct in broad terms, but mostly missed the complexity of the bigger picture – the relationship between central and local government, public and private sector and the compromises that need to happen at a time of austerity.

Many people would like or need planning to be simpler and I spend a lot of time trying to explain complex issues and the interplay between them in simple language. It is often a matter of boiling down what matters most and what matters to a lesser extent. This is a practical approach that politicians also like to use to get across simple messages. They are the people who also get to change policy and often fail to think through the unintended consequences of simplification. These consequences end up at the courts, where the message is always the same: the law is what it states and not what you would like it to be.

Simplicity is usually intended to be achieved through new regulations replacing old. The last bonfire of the regulations in planning came in 2012 with the publication of the first National Planning Policy Framework. It was trumpeted as the best way to reduce over 1,000 pages of secondary legislation to about 50 but the reality was somewhat different. Among a series of headaches, policies that mentioned "isolated dwellings" created particularly thorny problems, until case law could help make clear how to interpret the word and how it related to each type of site. This supposed simplification, for a few years, left applicants in limbo.

Last December’s Queen‘s Speech put forward the intention of a bill to reform planning. There is a strong possibility that the same kind of problems will recur. There is once again a recipe for unintended consequences. In my 26 years as a planner I have seen the Planning Encyclopedia grow from 6 volumes to over twice that. In the 1970s, it only ran to four volumes. This is not a resource which can only grow: When new pages are added due to evolving case law, this is accompanied by selective pruning.

Another old chestnut introduced in 2012 was the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The NPPF set out three categories to be satisfied - that development has to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. How that translated to practical circumstances led to much confusion before experience brought about a rough consensus, with the courts ruling on various aspects. It sounded so simple: sustainability is a fundamental aim of making decisions now that will affect the future. In practice, it was not so straightforward.

I am all for simplification. Ironically, so are the lawyers for whom it generates work and sometimes careers. Some of that work and uncertainty could be avoided by not rushing through ill-thought-out reforms and listening properly to the opinions of those who work in the system. Most of all, politicians need to beware of unintended consequences: they are always out there.