Elephant and Castle hit the news recently, as after months of delay and nearly 20 years of controversy a planning proposal for regenerating the town centre lurched over its first main hurdle.
This comes during intense discussions about whether the planning system is good enough, with senior figures complaining that the system itself is under huge stress. Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, suggested that planners are “demoralised” by the status quo.
If, as former housing minister Nick Raynsford suggests, the whole system needs to be overhauled, then the time is ripe to introduce a transparent, coherent and streamlined system that measures the impact of a planning application on the whole community.
Following Southwark LBC’s planning committee’s resolution to grant, the regeneration proposal goes into the labyrinth of section 106 negotiations around local infrastructure, and assessment by the mayor of London, adding months of delay and uncertainty to an already prolonged, confusing process.
The planning process has evolved over time to juggle the competing ambitions and demands of local authorities, developers and communities.
We have been providing independent business support to one of those interest groups, namely the long-established local businesses who have made the Elephant and Castle shopping centre their home.
We invested time getting to know the retailers, listening to their fears about their livelihoods and their staff. We know the impact of extended delay and uncertainty on their business and health, and will continue to support them as the complex, unwieldy planning process grinds through another summer.
But being uniquely placed between local traders, the community, the local authority and the developer, we are struck by the inability of the planning system to evaluate the social costs and benefits of a development.
In his recent speech to the LGA as housing and communities secretary, James Brokenshire suggested hyper-localism could bring vital planning decisions nearer to those who will have to live with them. This approach could be welcome to communities, but without a reformed methodology it risks replacing a remote, faceless process with one that unduly heeds the loudest voices.
The starting point for a reformed methodology should be defining its objective. We believe planning should be led by a presumption that a development must bring ‘positive social benefit’ to a community. This demands a new, more transparent, objective system for assessing each major redevelopment that values all voices.
The current system has sophisticated processes for measuring specific aspects of an application such as its financial viability, changes to traffic flow and environmental impacts. But it has no coherent methodology for assessing the overall benefits to the community – in effect no mechanism for assessing broader value.
It cannot weigh the relative merits of the convenience and safety created by a new infrastructure project against the loss of amenity from demolishing a favoured entertainment spot.
It cannot value the loss of accessible shopping to poor families. And it is blind to the stress and anguish that long planning applications impose on proprietors of small businesses struggling every day to make a living.
Yet these are precisely the issues the process should address if decision makers are to understand whether an application will bring positive social impact to a community. These are the issues at the heart of regeneration: hard to measure, and generating anger and frustration for residents.
I have been a social entrepreneur for the past 30 years, creating employment in disadvantaged areas across the UK, helping unemployed people start small businesses, and representing the needs of independent traders – the lifeblood of the local economy.
The key to helping people in these communities is constructive listening and openness in understanding their real concerns. To make the planning system fairer and more efficient we need to adopt a mechanism that ensures a community is heard and valued.
A balanced score card approach would greatly empower a whole community, not just its louder members, and give a clearer picture to planners and developers of what a proposal needs to incorporate and what mitigation would work in a local context.
We believe that it is possible to create a measurement tool that lets planners decide whether an application meets the test of positive social impact.
A positive impact framework would allow us to make better planning decisions in a more transparent and predictable way. If done well it would enable developments that reflect the views and harness the potential of the whole community.
Colin Crooks, chief executive, Tree Shepherd