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Daniel Slade: Planning in England suffers a box ticking tyranny

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Reports about austerity’s impact on local authorities’ ability to provide services are commonplace these days.

Recently the National Audit Office concluded that the planning system in England is “underperforming”, highlighting the 40% drop since 2010 in spending by local authorities on planning functions.

The painful irony is that planning is one of the most powerful tools local authorities have for stimulating the economic growth which would help them balance their books.

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s latest report goes deeper than the headlines. It reveals the less easily quantifiable impacts these cuts, in combination with recent planning reforms, have had on the practices and culture of English local planning authorities.

We found that many have understandably retreated to ‘box ticking’, reactive, and procedure-driven approaches to planning. This reduces their ability to plan proactively, creatively, or with localism at heart. It also raises pressing questions about the ability of planning to deliver in the public interest now and in the future.

The study probes what is on the minds of more than 70 planners from the public and private sectors across the UK. In almost all the sessions box ticking culture – a focus on numerical targets and procedure over concrete outcomes – was identified as one of the greatest threats to local planning authorities’ ability to work in the public interest.

This working culture has spread, as these authorities have increasingly had to hit tightly defined and procedural targets with shrinking resources. The less quantifiable, more creative, areas of planning have borne the brunt.

Why does this matter?

Professional discretion, and the freedom for local planners to independently weigh up different considerations when deciding planning applications, are cornerstones of the way the English planning systems works.

Indeed, this ability to balance local situations with policy is one of its strongest features. It’s what makes truly ‘local’ decision making possible. But when resource-starved local planning authorities must tick boxes to get through their application backlogs, this is lost. One of our public sector participants likened it to not having the headspace to think beyond the word of policy.

As well as reducing the quality of individuals decisions, box ticking undermines joined-up, strategic, thinking across developments. In the words of one of our participants: “50 houses here, 50 houses there and everybody is on the back foot. That doesn’t feel like good planning at all.”

This environment also has important consequences on local planning authorities’ ability to recruit and retain staff. Many planners find themselves in work that consist of little more than processing applications, with scant opportunity to practice proactive and creative planning.

It is a key reason why authorities find it so hard to retain the services of their graduate staff. This pushes up costs for them as they turn to agencies and consultants to fill gaps in their teams. It also means new planners often have little opportunity to practice creativity or discretion. These crucial skills are being drained from the system.

There’s a vicious circle at play here. Part of the reason planning has been reduced in many places to a reactive rump, is that a particular school of thought has always seen planning in purely regulatory terms, and as a break on growth.

Many recent reforms have been influenced by this perspective and prescribed narrow regulatory targets. Thus we see some critic’s view of planning as a regulatory and reactive box ticking enterprise becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is not the way it needs to be. We must make a simple choice between having a well-funded planning system that serves the public interest, creates beautiful places, and spurs the economic growth our local authorities need to survive, or having an underfunded planning system which acts only to regulate and tick boxes.

This is not only a question of funding. Leadership, both national and local, is crucial. This is why we are campaigning for local authorities to put planning back at the top table of corporate decision-making.

Local planning authorities have shown exceptional resilience in the face of austerity by becoming more streamlined and efficient. Planners in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland remain confident overall.

But planning in England does face serious challenges. When planners themselves made their concerns so clearly as they have with this study, something serious is at stake. We should all take note.

Daniel Slade, research officer, Royal Town Planning Institute

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