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We need to rethink the public’s role in the planning process

Here is a seeming paradox. Housing has steadily risen up the public agenda in recent years, with polls showing that housing shortages now rank as a top public concern. Yet developers, planners and politicians will tell you that the politics of planning have never felt more fraught.

Of course, new development has long tended to provoke local controversy and mobilise opposition. But as housing need has grown, so, it appears, has public hostility to new construction.

You’d think, against this background, that the government would be focusing hard on how to reset relations between local people, developers and planners. Far from it. The New Labour government did show some interest in this agenda, though mainly in relation to engaging local people in regeneration. But the governing ethos of the Cameron-May era has been a deregulatory one. It’s true that Cameron introduced and promoted Neighbourhood Planning – a genuinely radical innovation. But this was very much the exception that proved the rule. For the most part the aspiration is not so much to democratise planning as to roll it back in favour of the market. Think Permitted Development. Even the creation of the London mayoralty has not been accompanied by any great creativity when it comes to public participation in planning – unless you count the opportunity to submit a comment on the Draft London Plan via the internet as creative.

The fact is, if you want to find the last time government gave any serious thought to the role of the public in the planning process you have to go back to the Skeffington Review. And that was published 50 years ago, in 1969.

The original 1947 Town and Country Planning Act in effect established the present planning regime, giving local authorities control over land use and development in their area for the first time. But while the Act obliged planning authorities to consult with specific statutory bodies, there was no requirement to engage with the public effected by a development. Even by 1968 this ‘experts knows best’ outlook had come to look old fashioned and the Town and Country Planning Act of that year did for the first time introduce the principle of public consultation in planning, with the Skeffington Review set up to develop policy and guidance on how this should work. The report had much to recommend it. It emphasised the importance of engaging the public early on in the planning process and made the case for going beyond the usual suspects, and actively engaging people whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

But Skeffington obviously belongs to another era. The emphasis it puts on engaging the local press and using public notices and village hall meetings as tools of public engagement reminds us that it did not just predate the internet, it predated the fax machine. The role it gives to the public is a very limited one. The public themselves are viewed as a fairly homogenous whole; we are more sensitive to the diversity of circumstances, the interests of different groups and the way that planning decisions can inadvertently disadvantage less powerful people.

No one could argue that the last 50 years have been ones of unalloyed progress. We have in some ways become a more divided and less trusting country. This can make developing a genuinely collaborative planning process hard. But we have also become in many respects a more democratic society, less willing to defer to those on high – no bad thing. And experimentation with new democratic processes, such as citizens juries, and the rise of social technologies are opening up new participatory possibilities.

50 years on from the Skeffington Review, it’s surely not too soon for the government to think again about how we address public suspicion of new development and foster more creative and constructive relations between local people and the planning process.

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Ben Rogers is Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.

This blog was originally published by Local Government Chronicle. We are beginning a programme of work on public participation in London’s planning system.