In response to the Planning for the Future white paper, LDA Design’s chair Frazer Osment suggests what planning is for and how it can best underpin our efforts to meet the environmental, social, health and economic challenges of the 21st century. As featured in The Planner.
The purpose of the White Paper, Planning for the Future, is to build better looking homes, faster. Planning is largely defined in it by the function of housing delivery, and Government makes it clear that it believes Planning is getting in the way.
If the White Paper is about planning for the right future, as opposed to any old future, it needs to have a far more visionary purpose.
Planning is certainly not best placed for delivery at present. But that is because it is trapped in a reactive and dysfunctional site-based system with a five-year horizon, driven by the promotion and allocation of parcels of land to achieve short-term housing-led targets and commercial gain.
Any reform must confront this central problem, in order to realise the full role that Planning can play in society by pivoting fast and becoming a confident, progressive force to secure the optimal strategic locations for growth.
Crucially, planning for the right future demands that growth is balanced with the environmental agenda. It is as much about re-using land, soil, water, buildings and materials as it is about the new. Any plan that speeds housing delivery at the expense of the environment is looking backwards, not forwards. Yet astonishingly enough, climate is notable only by its absence from this White Paper.
How does LDA Design believe that Planning can deliver the right future? We think it will take five decisive new moves.
First, put climate at the heart of planning
We need to be more honest with ourselves about the way that society is responding to the climate and nature emergencies. There is lack of urgency, even while the impacts become quickly ever clearer, from flood risk and sea level rise to intergenerational inequality.
The current planning system contributes to growth patterns that are exacerbating carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. This can never be resolved at site level. Deregulation aimed at speeding up housing delivery, and enabling developers to do what they do best, needs to create enriched and better connected communities which are low carbon and biodiverse.
Too often, Planning is talked about in terms of numbers of housing units, development plan allocations and sustainable urban extensions. In reality, it remains our best hope to direct growth to the right places, lead decarbonisation, and put nature first. But meeting housing need whilst reducing emissions to net zero requires the full-scale adoption of landscape-led development.
Landscape is the only resource capable of managing today’s crises in climate and ecology. When it comes to climate response, for example, landscape-led planning will find natural ways to promote active travel, connect fragmented biodiversity and absorb stormwater.
Second, start leading with landscape, not land
The development industry needs to switch its focus away from the commodity value of land, and towards the value of landscape.
Landscape is the co-ordinating element that enables housing growth and connects settlements. Everyone should have the right to a home that supports an active and healthy life with easy access to nature. When Planning becomes landscape-led, every plan will pivot from a transactional relationship with land to a positive and creative relationship with landscape.
A landscape-led plan shows the true meaning of good design. It shows where growth should happen and the infrastructure (social, natural and utility) to make that growth acceptable. Landscape is the only resource capable of being planned to facilitate the changes essential for a thriving economy and a more equitable society as well as healthier places.
The origin of the word landscape lies in ‘creating a place where people belong’. Communities need to be able to put the case for what they want and need, and so the proposal in the White Paper to front-end consultation, to engage communities in the making of plans at an early stage, is a very good thing. While all zones need a strong underpinning structure with environmental design codes, this engagement still needs to follow through into the detailed planning and design considerations. These often govern whether a scheme is a success or a failure.
Landscape is also about working with what we have. Conserving, re-purposing and re-making landscapes and acknowledging and respecting the pre-existing, saving carbon, preserving memories, celebrating heritage, creating connection. This about everything, buildings, land, water, soil. We call this remaking the British Landscape.
Third, plan for people
Planning affects us all and we need to be able to trust our planning system to deliver. For too long now, people have seen built outcomes fail to match promises: permitted development is terrible proof of just how wrong deregulation can go. To rebuild public trust, we need to remake Planning.
Proper public engagement will only come about if Planning once again becomes righteous, ambitious and exciting enough to attract the crowds and encourage their participation. Planning needs to be demystified – less policy driven and more spatial and experiential, more relevant and purposeful.
We need to plan for what makes us human, and for future generations. Culture, history, health, nature, affordability, discovery, ingenuity, play and joy – these need to be embedded in policy. None are merely ‘nice-to-haves’, to be negotiated out through the planning process. They are all essential ingredients of every new community and everyday life.
Covid-19 taught us the importance of experiencing life on our doorstep and we need to be resilient and prepared for the next big challenge.
Fourth, draw a plan
We need some big spatial planning, to shape all the smaller plans. Key issues need addressing at national level to start with, to decide which moves will best deliver for society and the environment, and the long term investment that is needed.
Who would draw up these big plans? A new generation of chief planners: architect planners, landscape architect planners, urban designer planners. Polymaths with spatial, design and environmental skills, who understand how to reconcile growth at scale with climate action and biodiversity restoration. The UK is world class in its planning, landscape architecture, architecture, engineering, environmental management and green energy, but it is European cities that have kept their chief planners, and it shows. The way we educate and train planners needs to change.
These leaders would be brought together to deploy the science and big data, whether in addressing regional inequalities through sustainable growth; or in managing demand and supply for water, food, energy and waste; or in deciding where new woodland should go to prevent flooding many miles away.
By operating within a national context, local plans can finally be given the best chance to succeed.
Fifth, plan at pace
The White Paper rightly wants development to happen more quickly once planning decisions have been reached. There is a high risk that the current system is simply deregulated: speed must not undermine values, nor restrict community involvement.
It is essential to get the structuring plans for growth right in the first place. When you are building new communities, you need a full range of integrated outcomes that go well beyond housing. The important point is that time invested in the right plan upfront will enable faster, smoother progress down the line.
We believe there is much that is good in the White Paper, and nothing we’re saying would derail the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan – in fact, it strengthens them. Growth zones and accelerated delivery could be compatible with leading with the landscape to put climate at the heart of planning. They can also be compatible with planning for people. Areas of protection can help areas of growth and all places can benefit from green infrastructure linking landscape assets, economic centres and communities.
What Planning needs now is to be remade, with imagination and purpose. We have a golden opportunity. As the world watches our move to the Post-Brexit era, Planning for the Future needs to promote the right future for people and the planet.
This article was first featured in The Planner. The piece is taken from LDA Design’s submission to the consultation on the Planning for the Future white paper