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Monday, January 29, 2007
Green Belt, planning and how crazy the Policy Exchange can really get
The Policy Exchange's recent paper [pdf], show their pronouncements have gone from a bit over-zealous to just plain mad. If it was the Onion, or Private Eye, I might accept their latest 'findings' as good satire: "the planning system" is apparently to blame for everything from being muscled off your restaurant table for a second sitting to the loss of manufacturing jobs to interest rate rises to lack of consumer choice. No, seriously. And in conclusion, get rid of the green belt, decide big things by acts of Parliament and small things by incentivising local communities to say yes through glorified bribery, and introduce zones where only outline permission would be required.

I don't want to go into all the detail of why this paper has got it so wrong - I'll leave that to the RTPI instead. The trouble is, I don't believe in the green belt much either, and I'm all in favour of ecological low-density rural development. But I do care about quality - quality of the built and natural environment, and I'm not at all convinced that the 'optimism' that the authors purport to hold will really deliver more integrated communities, with more cycle paths, or public spaces, or shops that might serve local needs. Our planning system is still a lugubrious behemoth, with many badly-trained and often petty-minded people, but actually, slowly it might be getting better. Environmental impact assessments, compulsory design statements, green travel plans, affordable housing policy, public realm guidance; these things are actually about improving quality of life and the environment, not just hurdles for developers to waste money on.

The authors write "The system is seen as overly concerned with matters of detail, to the extent that the discussion of detail of the operation of the planning system, as well as of matters of principle, results in delay." Well, detail is what makes a Barratt home uglier than the Georgian one that it apes. And after all, this is our built environment - something that no-one can avoid, that affects every citizen of this country. Design - of buildings and public spaces - is important, and while there certainly is no accounting for taste, creativity, genuine public engagement and a real effort to understand local identity can go a long way to ensuring that our places continue to be inclusive, and to have a sense of place and community.

I also loathe the delays that mean a simple, well-designed application sits in planning for weeks while officers come up with lame excuses, but there are cases of exemplary partnership, when developers decide to work with, rather than against, the public authority, and get things through quicker. And that's the main problem with this donkey of an argument: it reverts to the old stereotype of developer and LA in eternal conflict, circling each other and trying to get away with as much as possible in an absurd game of bluff. The simple fact is that nothing ever gets done well through this kind of antagonism; a few good developers (and good LAs) are starting to understand the virtues of dialogue and quality, and if the bad continue to landbank and moan about the planning system; well, they could easily save themselves time and money by chucking out some of their dinosaur long-lunchers and entering the 21st century.

Planning should be strategic, locally responsive and democratic; all things that this report claims to have the answers to. But this wolf in sheeps clothing dismisses the possibility of bad design, the potential that a community might rather have a green field than half a million quid, the need for long-term vision, the requirement to maintain a balance of work, homes and play in every community in order to achieve any measure of sustainability. It makes me sad that they even get airtime, though it seems this time they've gone too far even for the Tories, who hurriedly came out defending the green belt and claiming that it was under threat from Gordon Brown and big business. Politics, as usual.

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