I’ve worked with planners for a number of years and I have to say I am no closer to understanding them than I was nearly 10 years ago. In fact I seem to be having the same infuriating conversations I had when I first became involved with planning, over and over again….
This week it was, I was told by a planner, ‘you can’t say schools, it’s education facilities’. It took me back to a week of my life I will never get back, arguing over whether we had to say ‘house dwelling’ instead of ‘house’. Education facilities and house dwellings may well be strictly technically correct but they are also utterly nonsensical if we want to engage local communities with planning (which in both these instances we were trying to do). I do appreciate the importance of language and the inherent technicalities in the planning system, but in my view that need not come at the expense of making planning accessible and inclusive.
When I first started working in and around the planning system I knew very little about it – much like the community groups I was so keen to encourage to get involved. It’s been a steep learning curve since then, but I was heartened by what I heard from those who knew more than me. ‘Planning was being opened up’ and ‘communities now have the chance to get involved in influencing planning in a way that they didn’t have in the past’. These sentiments drove me on to find out more in the belief that there were new opportunities to be grasped, if only we could penetrate the opaque world of local development documents, planning obligations and permitted development.
And to some extent, I think I did find those opportunities. They lay in influencing planning at a more strategic level – not in opposing planning applications that were already firmly in the agreed plans for an area. There have been some major changes to the planning system since then, with the introduction of neighbourhood plans and the right to build and the scrapping of nearly 1,000 pages of statutory guidance. The ground has shifted insofar as it is now possible to influence your (very) local area, without having to set your sights on the strategic plans for an area (though that remains a sensible approach to take).
In theory it has never been more straightforward for local communities to influence development and land-use planning in their area. And yet I do not believe we’ve moved on as far as we might expect.
For the majority of community groups I’ve spoken to (and this is by no means a strictly representative sample) their experience of planning continues to be ‘fighting a rearguard’ – reacting to things they don’t like. They continue to regard planning as inaccessible, bureaucratic, complicated and difficult to influence.
I do not mean to suggest that all planners are like this. Far from it. I’ve met numerous outstanding people working in the built environment and planning who are deeply committed to opening up planning and making it more accessible and meaningful for communities. Tomorrow I will be at the Design Council for a gathering of their Built Environment Experts and I know there will be plenty of enlightened planners there who are likely to be as depressed as me about the state of the profession their care deeply about.
Plenty of planners talk the language of participation and engagement, whilst continuing to hide behind inaccessible and inappropriate language. We can’t have it both ways. Either we accept that accessible language is ‘good enough’ or we adhere strictly to the technical language that continues to exclude people from participating in planning.
I’m still firmly of the view that planning is something which is relevant and important for local communities to engage with and I will continue to do what I can to support their participation. However after nearly a decade of trying I am getting really tired with the resistance I’ve encountered which shows no signs of abating.