There have been many attempts to define the components that together make up places that support people and the environment.
Sir John Egan talked about places that were well designed and built, inclusive and safe, had a thriving economy, were well connected and well run, were fair and well served, and were established with environmental sensitivity. The Project for Public Places promoted great places where everyone’s needs for sociability, access and linkages, comfort and image and uses and activities were met. The German Advisory Council on Global Change sets out these criteria in the context of maintaining overall health levels through education, awareness of and reaching everyone’s potential, facilitation of socio-cultural patterns, good leisure and recreation opportunities, good employment and freedom from job stress, strong social networks and community cohesion, good healthcare networks and facilities, a high standard in the built environment, and effective climate and environmental measures. There are many more. So with all this good advice, why can’t our planning regime deliver the places that people deserve?
The answer probably lies in the ‘too many cooks’ school of decision-making that has evolved over many decades in the UK and across Europe. In its evidence to the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission last year, the RTPI highlighted the problem when it said that ‘fragmentation of funding and policy functions is having a detrimental effect on our planners’ ability to achieve positive outcomes in housing supply and other societal needs…’ The evidence suggested that if elements of place including healthcare, schools, transport, infrastructure, housing etc.) could be funded from one source (by local governments) then planners would have an easier job to co-ordinate the specific needs of each area.
In many places planning has become a reactive pursuit, responding to investment propositions in a development-friendly statutory regime, albeit within the confines of a Development Plan if one exists. The absence of a more forensic approach, identifying need through the analysis ‘socio-economic variables’ has, in the opinion of the RTPI, ‘affected the provision of housing, transport, and employment, which from a planning point of view are closely related’. In adds that ‘a new joined-up way of thinking about how to improve governance in response to twenty-first century challenges’ is needed to help planners to do the job they were trained to do. While there is hope that existing or emerging devolved combined authorities (in England) can use their collective powers to consolidate all the elements of place-making, there still remains the problem of day-to-day constrains on development control. If these are allowed to remain then governance is not going to help very much.
The structural constraints that paint planners into corners and mitigate against sustainable place-making are everywhere in the planning world. Reform of three tools in particular could have life-changing effects on those who are experience change as a result of new development. The tools are: legally binding agreements; the information gained from community members; and the rules that govern the sale of publically owned land and assets.
Planning obligations under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended), commonly known as ‘106 Agreements’, are a mechanism which makes a development proposals acceptable (in planning terms) which otherwise would not be acceptable. They are used to bind developers into pro-social/environmental enhancements to their schemes. They used extensively by Local Authorities to gain commitments on affordable housing from housebuilders but can apply to any other kind of community benefit. However, the current economic climate has increased developers’ opportunities to reduce affordable provision through viability appraisals. JRF has done work to show that in weaker markets 106 Agreements have delivered fewer affordable homes. This is because developers can argue against the request to enter into a 106 Agreement on the grounds that they cannot afford the additional investment.
Since 2013 106 Agreements have become renegotiable on the grounds of viability. The introduction of the non-negotiable Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) in 2010 now strengthens an interest to renegotiate a 106. Consequently, even where Local Authorities have managed to secure a 106 Agreement, the developer can back out of it if it can be argued that the economic basis on which the original agreement was founded has changed making it too expensive to deliver.
If this wasn’t problematic enough, 106 Agreements can’t really be applied to ‘acceptable’ development. A standard housing scheme that complies with the Local Plan but could be enhanced with (for example) better facilities for tenants, or safer children’s play areas might be requested, but it can’t be part of a 106 Agreement.
The solution is to amend the S.106 Agreement terms to include all development, and amend the definition of viability to include the whole of the local economy and not just the economic implication of the scheme within the red line.
Local Community Consultation
After a planning application is submitted, the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order (2015) requires a period of consultation where views on the proposed development can be expressed. The formal consultation period is usually 14-21 days depending on the nature of the application. The local planning authority will then identify and consult the individuals and groups that offered an opinion before using this and other evidence to come to a decision on whether to approve the application.
There is already extensive guidance on good price to engage communities in planning decisions. The RTPI states that ‘the phrase “community engagement” causes considerable confusion for it is often used as an umbrella term to cover the whole range of public involvement and consultation. In fact it has a more precise meaning, and refers to those actions and processes which take place to establish an effective relationship with individual and organisational stakeholders’.
However, the main failing with current methods is that they do not identify the social and environmental value (either positive or negative) that will be experienced by those directly affected by the development. A clearer and more inclusive survey method that captures the issues that affects people’s lives will both identify the key issues of concern in the community, and throw up a number of potential solutions which can be fed back to the developer.
Publically Owned Land and Assists
One way that public bodies can encourage more pro-social and environmental investment from developers is to drop the price of the land or assets to be developed. This helps the viability calculation as the developer has more capital to spend on the site. The problem here is that S.123 of the Local Government Act (1972) and S.233 of the Town and country Planning Act (1990) requires Local Authorities to sell assets at unrestricted market value, known as ‘best consideration’. They are allowed to drop the price by £2M (under advice from Circular 06/03) which is an workably small amount for most developing sites in any case, but only if they can prove that it achieves promotion or improvements to the economic, social or environmental wellbeing of the area.
The current method of valuing land and assets does not pick up sustainable value easily. Without this, Authorities cannot prove they acted within their fiduciary duty. If methods that monetise social and environmental change in the built environment were more widely applied, then the valuations would help public bodies concerned about best consideration to incorporate social and environmental wellbeing in their justification to value assets at lower than market value prices.
The early Impact of RealWorth’s Approach
Each one of these obstacles to building social and environmental value could be overcome with a more effective way of valuing sustainable change. The Sustainable Return on Investment approach employed by RealWorth is starting to make inroads into these seemingly intractable problems within the planning system. It will need greater political focus and a willingness to test conventional methods of valuing and engagement, but without these changes planners will be stitched into to agreeing to approve application that deliver less than sustainable places.
The RTPI Evidence can be found here
Visit the Inclusive Growth Commission website here
The Section 106 agreements are explained here
The JRF report can be found here