Evidence as a Passion Killer: The Need to Decouple the Everyday Experience of Place from a National Housing Crisis
Chris Maidment, Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield (see Chris’ profile here)
The rapid spread of Neighbourhood Plans reminds that, if nothing else, there is a large group of extraordinary people out there, who care deeply about how their communities should develop, or how they should be preserved in aspic. Drawing on this passion, neighbourhood planning arguably presents a rare opportunity within the current English planning system to achieve the holy grail of planning theory; the making of a plan in a truly communicative manner. The community-led nature of the plan should ensure that anyone using jargon will be politely asked to refrain. Meanwhile planning for an area geographically small in scale significantly improves the chances of getting all of the stakeholders around a single, albeit rather large, table. These are the things held up as crucial to successful consensus building.
If a plan covers the area of a neighbourhood it does not seem unreasonable to posit that its impacts on day-to-day life will be equally limited in geographical scope. To this end it is arguable that those best placed to understand how day-to-day life in a place might be improved are those who currently live there, those whose everyday lives are directly impacted by the quality of the place. The difficulty comes when the definition of stakeholder is widened to include those might live there in the future but who cannot currently do so because of a lack of housing, affordable or otherwise. Such ‘stakeholders’ cannot represent themselves but are instead reliant on their needs being represented by others around the table.
Herein lies a tension. In a context where planning is obsessed with ‘deliverability’ housing targets and allocations must be underpinned with robust evidence. Continuing tendencies toward planning by appeal illustrate how even Local Authorities struggle to get this right. Those at the first seminar heard how housebuilders operate cautiously and will likely never deliver the quantities of housing necessary to address the most conservative estimates of the English housing shortage. Equally it was reported how the New Homes Bonus had had a limited impact in the face of significant local government cuts and how cash payments (bribes) to communities were unlikely to overcome opposition to new housing. Better infrastructure and more jobs might. However the current state of local government finance makes it difficult to achieve infrastructure improvements without funding them through developer contributions.
Despite all of this, under Neighbourhood Planning, communities may choose for themselves a role in devising housing targets and allocating sites, so long as they can bring together the evidence to underpin this. Arguably this is to over-burden communities involved in Neighbourhood Planning by failing to address a basic question; what is the role of a local authority? There is a need to address housing shortage whether neighbourhoods wish to accommodate new homes or not. Asking communities to muddle through the complicated evidence for this is surely the quickest way to kill any passion for getting involved in planning, and with it any chance of an open dialogue. Addressing the gap between what housebuilders provide and what is needed has, in the past, been a crucial function of local authorities. Equally we should remind ourselves that planning has typically been the purview of local authorities because understanding the evidence and the broader picture is a full time job.
So what should be the role of a Neighbourhood Plan? Neighbourhoods may have to accept new housing but that doesn’t mean that new housing shouldn’t have to respond to the existing character of a place. Certainly I suspect that a key factor in the resistance to new housing is the poor quality of recent new housing developments, and its poor integration into places. So Neighbourhood Plans should be about defining what it is that new housing needs to fit in with. Equally if we dare to think of a time when local authorities may again build houses in significant quantities we regain the ability to decouple infrastructure improvements from the housing developments that currently fund them. Only then may those involved in Neighbourhood Planning be truly free to think about how the day-to-day experience of place may be improved for those that already live there, and the place that they leave for future generations. In common with other posts this is not about denigrating the value of day-to-day experiences in understanding the problems that planning needs to tackle. It is about saying that unpaid local volunteers should not be burdened with tackling a crisis that is national in scale and time-consuming in its complication.