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Why planning policy has got to go

In spite of the government’s best efforts over the last year, Britain’s not growing. They’ve tried public sector cuts, increasing taxes and tinkering with a half hearted growth policy but nothing seems to be working. Obviously what we need to do next is shake up the planning system which is ‘slowing the delivery of much needed new jobs and new business’.

This sounds serious; after all, planning is simply about more bureaucracy, permissions, controls, regulations, guidelines and forms. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a Britain without any of this planning policy nonsense?

Obviously the economy would grow much faster, unfettered by the chains of state intervention. Currently planning policy is a ‘serious brake’ on growth because it protects areas of outstanding natural beauty, manages urban sprawl and tries to drive up environmental standards on new buildings. It also meddles in the housing market by trying to convince cash strapped developers to build new social housing.

If you want to get a feel for an economy without planning, why not take a trip to Venezuela? The capital Caracas is, despite its socialist street cred, totally devoid of planning policy. The free market has been completely liberated with all manner of economic activity, from the big global players’ downtown in their attractive breezeblock offices, to the barrio entrepreneurs who recycle the city’s rubbish, find their own electricity and hook up their own wireless internet.

In total, 60% of the city’s population are housed informally in the barrios and they represent the ultimate in big society and free economy where citizens provide their own services. Perhaps barrios would be a good model for social and economic development in Britain?

Apart from this economic success, Caracas has also benefited from endemic smog, unending traffic jams where carjacking is a fact of life, excruciating inequality and a public transport system that looks as if it is trapped in the 1950s. Local government in Caracas are busy trying to develop and, more importantly, to enforce a planning system. We spent an afternoon at Chacao Council where they’ve been trying (in vain) to explain why having even a modicum of planning policy might just be a good idea. They realise that the costs of NOT having a planning system are also significant, with the public sector picking up the tab for, among other things, poor health, reduced tourism revenue, crime and policing.

If you don’t have the time to go to Caracas – just hop over the sea to Ireland and see how effective a weak planning system has been at supporting sustainable growth…

The problem with the government’s approach to planning reform is that it has decided to turn it into a one dimensional argument – growth versus planning. Planning does need reform. There is a need for greater integration between spatial and economic policy and greater involvement of citizens in the planning process. Crucially we need much greater boldness on the part of planners to generate new ideas as to the future look and feel of their place, particularly at a time when the temptation is to become more, not less risk averse.

In the absence of support for economic development and regeneration strategy, planners have also got a responsibility to support those communities which are most vulnerable. Effective planning policy is not simply a bureaucratic burden but a powerful tool which can be used to realise new social and economic visions for our communities – if only we’d learn how to use it imaginatively.


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