Planning for people: a new manifesto

The Where We Live Now project has highlighted the importance of place in people’s lives and life-chances, and explored whether policy making would improve if it was designed to focus more on places and less on sectors such as education / health / transport, and so on.

There is, however, one area of policy making that is already entirely place-focused, and that’s planning.

In theory, planning should be the key part of policy making that shapes the long-term future of places, taking into account the local population, economy, environment, social needs, local aspirations and character, setting a vision and policies for each place that will help shape its future for the better. A strong and democratic planning system would ensure that there were enough good homes, in thriving, attractive places, for everyone – and this is what countries such as the Netherlands manage to achieve.

tcpa1In practice, however, it is not working at all well in England – and this particularly true for the most deprived communities. As some of the post-BREXIT research has confirmed, we are creating ‘left-behind’ places in which even well-qualified people will struggle to succeed.

The TCPA (Town & Country Planning Association) is an independent national charity that campaigns for the reform of the planning system to make it more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and to promote sustainable development. During the last few years we have been increasingly concerned about the way in which planning has been reduced from a rich and ambitious enterprise to create high quality places that reduce social inequalities and improve all lives, into a narrow, technocratic process which focuses on economics above all else.

tcpa3In 2013, with funding from the Webb Memorial Trust, we investigated the impact that planning decisions were having on some of the worst-off communities in England. Our report, ‘Planning out poverty’, illustrated a wide range of ways in which the already tough lives of people in deprived areas were being made even worse by a planning system that is driven by economics, not people’s needs. Decisions are too often being made with the assumption that any economic activity will benefit all local people. In practice, however, as the research demonstrated, the economic benefits – for instance new jobs – are often not accessible to those who need them most. As ‘Planning out poverty’ puts it, ‘Planning has multiple and complex effects on people’s lives because its decisions often involve the allocation of resources. Crudely, there are winners and losers from planning decisions, and planning therefore has the power to help promote greater or lesser levels of equity and social justice.’

tcpa5So who, and what, are we planning for? In the past the purpose of planning was clearly articulated in national policy – its aim was to distribute scarce resources in ways that would benefit society as a whole, but particularly those who have least. Now, however, the National Planning Policy Framework, the document that sets the policy for the whole of England, does not articulate an overarching purpose for planning other than a reference to ‘sustainable development’ which is so ill defined in as to be almost meaningless.

At the TCPA we think it is time to put the needs of people back at the heart of planning. We have set this out in a short statement, the #planning4people manifesto. The manifesto has now been supported by more than 100 people and organisations and is starting to shift discussions about what – and who – planning is for. We hope you will read it.

Planning will always be a difficult, messy, controversial process. It deals with the fundamental issue of who gets what in society and so it is only right that it leads to arguments, disagreements, and debate – this is all part of democracy. However, in countries with strong planning systems that are clearly designed to benefit all, the discussion is followed by action: to put it crudely, homes get built.

tcpa4In this country, however, with weak, deregulated planning policy that is dominated by economics, not people’s needs, we have all of the messy arguments but none of the benefits. We build too few homes, and they are often of a poor quality, particularly in poorer areas. For instance, we have no national minimum space standards for new homes, and build the smallest homes in Europe.

We could do so much better. We hope you will read the #planning4people manifesto and sign up to support its aims. Planning is far too important for all of us to be ignored.

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Julia Thrift TCPA
Julia Thrift (@juliathrift) joined the TCPA in May 2013 and runs projects concerning planning and public health, planning and social justice, and green infrastructure. Throughout her career she has been interested in the links between the design of the built environment and the quality of people’s lives. She worked for CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, where she was the founding director of CABE Space, the government’s adviser on policy and practice regarding England’s urban parks and public spaces. She began her career as a journalist, writing about design, architecture and art. She has a degree in philosophy from University College London.