Jane Briginshaw argues for a big shift in the planning system

Briginshaw Jane

Certain that the purpose of our activity is to make better places for people, imagine my delight as the ambition of the Raynsford review sunk in. Nailing its colours to the mast, the report begins: “What is required is a deep and hard look at the fundamentals – what should be the purpose of planning.”

Reading on, proposition four – “a new covenant for community participation” –  struck a chord: “To be effective, planning must have public legitimacy. This legitimacy is under intense strain, with a broad disconnect between people and the wider planning system”.

The review’s recommendations include: “a significant new approach to helping communities to engage in the planning process, with a focus on engaging groups who do not currently have a voice, such as children and young people”.

But “Key policy issues from the evidence” gives the interim report a less assertive feel. We’re reminded of the scale of the challenge. What it describes as the “emerging policy themes” – or more accurately the fact of “areas of profound disagreement” – have the review group backing away from the “power of local communities” theme, which was asserted so confidently as an early proposition.

Surely “the degree to which communities should have meaningful control” is settled? Isn’t command and control from above a thing of the past? The review wants to involve children and young people more in planning. The brilliant research by University of Oxford’s Rys Farthing shows that far from being disengaged and uninterested, young people from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds are raring to have a say about where they live. If young people don’t get involved with planning, we all lose. Where their contribution is welcomed, they have serious impact – as Islington Fair Futures Commission proves, with recommendations that include children and young people being consulted on major development proposals including social housing.

Did I hear mention of women in planning? No. If I had, I might have heard about how women in communities are changing the way governance is done. How they are changing masculine patterns of competition and urgency and combining community goals with concrete action.

To make effective change, the report talks about needing cross-party consensus. But the question it poses up front, namely “what is the planning system for?”, has more to do with what world view you have – which is of course profoundly political. It can change, as can a country’s world view and its culture. The report convincingly describes how the system has shifted in favour of private property rights in the balance with the role of the state. From what I see and the work I do with communities, I think the report should go with its heart and come down strongly in favour of a new shift – towards a people-centred planning system for the future.