Tearing down a statue? That'll need planning permission from now on...

January 29 2021
Tearing down a statue? That'll need planning permission from now on...

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

YOU may be wondering what planners are going to be doing to keep ourselves occupied in the future. The government seems very keen to take away the sort of things that used to occupy us by finding out new ways to give planning permission, or new equivalents, that involve minimum scrutiny.

Recently we had a clue as to what the future of planning might entail, courtesy of the man in charge, Robert Jenrick. This was mainly prompted by Bristol's Edward Colston statue being treated to a bath (above). It was announced that, in future, that sort of thing was going to require planning permission.

Putting aside the slim possibility that Black Lives Matter protesters would have diverted to the Council House, filled in the requisite forms and sat around on College Green waiting eight weeks for a decision, there is some sense in making this a planning matter.

What better forum in which to debate the worth or desirability of retaining statues than through planning, which has expertise in consultation and decision-making in the public benefit?

Of course he then spoilt it by talking about "baying mobs", as if there was no right to protest and "town hall militants", as if the people at the town hall were not being governed by elected representatives.

Still, this maybe indicates that the future of planning is either somewhere where awkward public matters can be resolved or a forum for heritage – most likely a mixture of both. That is something of a departure from the regulation of the use and development of land in the public interest. This potential new purpose is not much comfort in uncertain times, given how few statues and blue plaques there are.

It feels that planning itself is facing an existential threat. The response to this is naturally to make the case for what planning actually does. Sadly, measuring achievement is a matter that has always troubled the profession, as it is less straightforward than in some other jobs.

The established standard measure is: how long does it take to determine planning applications? Using this metric, it is more productive to make decisions quickly than make the right decisions, or add value to a proposal.

However, speed of decision-making is not going to save planning from the White Paper.

Surely the most meaningful measurements should be based on the quality of outcomes? The process has evolved in recent years to allow time for the correct decision.

Poor decisions leave a poor legacy for future generations and, frankly, if planning can’t leave a decent legacy, then maybe wholesale reform is justified.

The difficulty comes in how to measure quality. This problem has always beset planners. Questionnaires for the occupiers of new housing and their established neighbours is one possibility, if they respond, but it is not always just the immediate locals who are affected by development. And planning does not occur in isolation: it contributes to wider outcomes and interacts with many other systems.

The latest response to this is the development of a tool kit which takes into account the following themes: Place, design and people; Health and well-being; Environment, conservation and improvement; Climate change; Homes and communities; Economy and town centres; Process and engagement and Movement.

These inputs are predictably complicated, but if the tool kit helps to distil how planning as a whole is of benefit, perhaps this in itself will provide a measure of value that politicians will accept. My fingers are crossed.


Picture of the statue of Edward Colston being recovered from Bristol docks, after being thrown in by protesters, courtesy of Bristol City Council