“Politics play a role in planning, and it is not at ground level”
“Things that don’t work well”? Polka Dots and Stripes, Planning and Politics.
Preparing for a choice is usually an uncertain time for real estate developers as those in power try to break down old guidelines and introduce new ones (often with a catchy tagline – ‘Build Back Better’ Northern Powerhouse ‘,’ Leveling Up ‘,’ Build Build, Build ‘). Unfortunately, this turbulence can also originate from the same government but from a new cabinet member. Case in point is that Michael Gove was recently appointed as the new Minister of Leveling and Housing as part of the recent government restructuring, and his words have already created a sign of uncertainty in the industry. A speech at the Conservative Party convention suggested that communities should be able to take action against large-scale housing targets and areas of outstanding natural beauty and green fields. This soundbite is all well and good for politicians looking to win votes, but it’s not good for property developers who already have developments on the local plan or a greenfield building permit for the thousands desperately trying to get there come, have approved the property manager.
Unfortunately, most planning problems often go to politicians, which is frustrating considering that I and my colleagues in the planning industry have trained in this area for many years. So I believe we need to find ways to take politics out of the planning process. Of course, removing politics completely from planning is not the solution, but neither is divisive rhetoric about building on the green field. The planning strategy should be guided by the government, plans influenced by communities and decisions made by qualified individuals.
The wind of political change
To give an example of how much policy change can have on housing development, just look at the upcoming local elections and their indirect impact on the looming consultation deadlines for local plans. Due to the upcoming elections in May 2022, many local authorities are seeing delays in their deliberations on the local plan used by members as a political tool to get local support, especially during the elections. To overcome this, the authorities often postpone such consultations until after the election. While this ultimately seeks to curb the political influence on site assignments, in a plan-driven system this delay can create its own problems that create a snowballing effect on the development industry by eliminating the predicted deadlines for securing new assignments and then submitting building applications will be slowed down and eventually home delivery. Given the time it is taking to develop, the industry is understandably hedging its bets based on new political tendencies, and this stop-start approach is slowing down the approach to leveling out much-needed housing.
Developers will know that a change in policy could put their plans on hold for approval before the committees, which would mean months of work and a loss of thousands of pounds. One such move has even led one home builder to insist that the members of the planning committee receive planning training – an understandable request given how much their decisions could affect the housing crisis. In my opinion, exercise is a start, but not the solution. A comprehensive understanding of the planning process and a holistic view of the issues can only be achieved through a profound understanding of urban planning, supplemented by industry experience.
The above frustrations are compounded by the misconception of the general public about so many planning matters – be it the role of the Green Belt, the land banking conundrum, and the mechanisms of the planning framework. As reported by the press, these real-world misunderstandings are confirmed in planning committee rooms across the country. The result is too few houses, unnecessary costs and delays, houses in the wrong places and the undermining of planning officers.
The healthy mix of politics and planning
Current decision-making practice by (often unqualified) planning committees often places members in an awkward position and undermines the process and work of public officials. Between following a positive recommendation from a planner and keeping a promise to residents to combat development. A better means of working together would be to invest appropriately in the municipal planning departments and allow qualified civil servants to do their job and influential local figures involved at a higher level to submit a framework application (if at unassigned locations) to express it, or when formulating the policy.
Politics has a role to play in planning, and not at the earth level, as it stands in the way of all technical issues such as drainage, design or highways. It’s a level that ensures that developers and the community understand housing plans from the start – because only when we’re together in this housing crisis will we achieve the much-sought-after housing goals. The focus should be on a national Green Belt Review, a national infrastructure plan, a national spatial planning plan, strategic regional planning and investments in municipalities. The lack of progress in these areas stifles this country’s ability to properly plan and build the homes it needs.
To advance our approach to planning and land development, it is time to take politics out of the local planning process. If a development has already been approved in a development plan or benefits from a master plan approval, it has already been examined accordingly. Hence, it should not be delayed by local politicians who are not qualified to judge on such matters. If the government is serious about “leveling” then let’s drop the policy and let the planners do the job of delivering the much needed homes for Britain.