Broken Beyond Repair?

On 05 March our Board Director and Head of Planning, Jonathan Manns, chaired a lively and entertaining public debate on ‘The Planning System: Broken Beyond Repair?’, on behalf of the London Society and Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI London).

Jon mediated two other leading industry figures Daniel Moylan and Victoria Hills, who respectively presented their case for and against the motion. Daniel is the former Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council and is co-Chairman of Urban Design London. Victoria is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute and was formerly CEO of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation and Head of Transport for the Greater London Authority.

In launching the discussion, Jon made clear the scope and importance of the topic. “This raises two initial questions,” he said, “firstly, is the planning system broken? and secondly, if it is, can it be repaired? However, before we even tackle these, there are other fundamental matters we should consider, such as who and what is planning for?”

Daniel began with a passionate and well-articulated argument, stressing that the most important matter was “not whether it is broken but whether it can be repaired”. Whilst recognising that new development “takes time to bed in”, he made the point that many of our most loved areas emerged prior to the existence of a planning system. He went on to argue that “planning has become a racquet” which operates in favour of big business. He was scathing of the regulatory detail required by planners (“a form of madness in which bureaucracy has taken over”) and extent to which it seeks to predict and provide for the market (“it was never easy being a 5-year planner in the Soviet Union and it’s not today, working out how many toothbrushes we’ll need in five years’ time”).

Victoria replied clearly and forcefully, making clear that “we can’t accept the idea that the planning system is broken” and that it is “considered to be the international gold standard”. She painted the picture of a profession ready to grasp the mantle and flagged the rise in student numbers on planning courses; indicative, she asserted, of the fact that the subject “clearly chimes with millennials”. She then sought to dismantle Daniel’s criticisms from the position that reforms have occurred too often and “it’s about how you make the best of what you have”.  She stressed the need for leadership and resourcing: “the bit that’s needed is more people”, not least a new generation of Chief Planners to ensure that the profession is represented at the top-table in Local Authorities.

Jon then mediated a lively conversation between Daniel, Victoria and the audience. There was broad recognition on both sides of the need to deliver new development at pace and for the quality of new development to be controlled, but not on the most appropriate way to achieve this. The night ended with some cause for optimism – with roughly 2/3 of the audience concluding that, broken or not, the system was not beyond repair.

Jonathan Manns is a Trustee of The London Society (a forum for built environment debate in London since 1912) and Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute (the principal body representing planning professionals in the United Kingdom and Ireland).