Planning for growth … reflections on the RTPI Convention

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Over 400 people attended the 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week, keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. While there was recognition of the political uncertainty created by the UK’s Brexit referendum result, there was a strong message that the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.

Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the iApply combined online planning and building control submissions service. We’ve had great feedback from clients on the efficiencies which iApply has enabled.

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The importance of technology in planning was highlighted by many speakers at the Convention.

Planning great places

Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.

Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.

Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. A key aspect of this was the use of social media and online platforms to communicate with residents, businesses and other stakeholders. Fundamentally, local planning consultation allows choices to be made between different visions for the future – and helps communicate the difficult decisions that need to be made around social, environmental and economic factors.

The benefits of an interactive process are that it enables continuous dialogue and lays the foundation for communities to stay connected with the council and planners. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.

Delivering housing growth

Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.

The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.

The future direction of planning

While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.

A number of ‘young planners’ – those in the first ten years of their careers – presented a vision for planning in the future. There is a wealth of information emerging about how people ‘feel’ about places, and this can feed into strategic planning. Whether it is crowdsourcing information or using GIS locational data, traditional planning processes can be enhanced by new technologies. Digital technologies can also help with public engagement and participation.

The public have new expectations as both consumers and citizens – and public services need to respond to this. Within planning, this means shifting from treating the public as merely customers. Instead, great places are only going to be created in future through co-creation, co-operation and co-production. And this is where different technologies and solutions can help the profession evolve.

A rallying cry for leadership

The challenge for the profession was summed up by one speaker quoting Joseph Konvitz – “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.

Planners are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.

The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.

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