The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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The Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill – Changing the Question

20th November 2015

The Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords today (20th November). It has been introduced by Lord Lexden though is strictly non-partisan in nature. Create Streets has been heavily involved in its drafting and it builds on the logic of our community work and research as well as on the 2011 Localism Act, Neighbourhood Planning and ResPublica’s publication, A Community Right to Beauty.

Ultimately though, what underlines this bill is the simple yet crucial fact that the UK housing crisis is in many ways fundamentally a problem of lack of political consent for new development. Politicians trying to ‘fix’ the problem have been asking the wrong question. They have been asking; ‘how do we build more homes?’ They should have been asking; ‘how do we make new homes more popular?’

The aim of the bill therefore is to improve the nature of local consultation in order to:

  • empower what citizens want over what some planners think they should want;
  • extend the progress made by neighbourhood planning;
  • encourage more building and more popular support for building;
  • reduce the cost of planning by engendering more popular consent;
  • increase the speed of building; and
  • improve the ability of normal citizens to influence what gets built

Supporting this Bill is a growing corpus of evidence:

  • that the nature and quality of design very materially impacts the level of support for new housing and development;
  • that the components that design professionals and non-professionals look for in the urban environment are not the same;
  • that the process of ‘consultation’ as currently required and practiced too often descends into a PR sham which just engenders public mistrust and opposition to new housing;
  • that people are systematically far more prepared to support new housing when they are genuinely, not cynically, consulted and when the form and nature of the development is to their liking; and
  • that tools such as enquiry by design and design-codes as opposed to our antagonistic development control process can lead to better, more popular, more valuable development with no loss of speed of development.

To take just one of these themes: people want consultation to be real and not a fake exercise in post hoc rationalisation. Unfortunately there is a growing scepticism about the validity and intent of “consultation” exercises. As the Prince’s Foundation found in their ‘What People Want’ research undertaken in 2014:

In several recent examples in London we have encountered a justifiable scepticism about the validity and intent of ‘consultation’ exercises. Too often the real choices being given to communities are superficial (“where would you like the trees?”) and the subsequent presentation of evidence is carefully chosen to underplay the overwhelming level of discontent or opposition.”

Real questions on height, style and ‘massing’ of buildings are just not asked or are deliberately buried in a miasma of second order detail. A recent London Assembly Housing Committee session, focused on residents’ perspectives of the regeneration of London’s social housing estates, echoed these concerns. For example, Derrick Chung, chair of the West Hendon Residents’ Association said:

“The decision-making process for the regeneration of West Hendon was a consultation that was an ultimatum: you either take it or there is a bus going that way. We were not allowed to take part in the decision-making process.”

At the same session, Lucy Musgrave of Publica summed up the common failures of community consultation, stating:

“I have to say I am pretty opposed to how we deal with public consultation in this country and it is pretty spurious … at best, it is information giving … I have to say I cannot point to any good example where the public consultation processes actually allow residents and participants to influence what is going to be happening because the financial model and the development model has already been decided upon.”

Our development control approach would therefore appear to be particularly bad. It is neither fast nor efficient. Nor is it honest.

The Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill therefore has four main components, designed to ameliorate this situation.

  • Strategic Planning: to permit citizens, if they wish, to develop form-based design codes to define how buildings and streets will function and look in their neighbourhoods and to encourage the revitalisation of popular and walkable neighbourhoods;
  • Budgeting: to permit and encourage local planning departments to aid neighbourhood forums in order to maintain their budget;
  • Development Control: to require the participation of a much wider cross-section of society for strategic development projects via a charrette or enquiry by design process;
  • Estate Regeneration: specifically, to allocate funds to facilitate fully-supported enquiry by design approaches to estate regeneration in contrast to the usually inadequate consultation exercise.

The Bill has been supported by a range of national civic society organisations including Civic Voice, the Historic Towns Forum and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. It is also supported by local community organisations such as Look St Albans and reflects our own work with community groups in London and beyond.

Private Members’ Bills have played a significant role in improving our approach to the built environment in the past. In 1967 Duncan Sandys drew first place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and used the opportunity to introduce the Civic Amenities Act which created Conservation Areas.

We need a Direct Planning revolution in this country to better align what we built with what people want to see built and to permit us, systematically, to build enough houses with popular support. This Bill could be the first part of this necessary revolution.

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