Time to rebuild the public’s trust in our Planning System

Has confidence in planning as a public service ever been so low? Like most, I have been watching with interest as the ‘Westferry Farce’ unfolds across the tabloids, with seemingly a new turn every week. Whilst details are murky (and I am not going to embark on a sentencing of our Rt Hon Mr Jenrick in this piece), its impacts on our profession on a day to day basis could be catastrophic.

Putting aside the impenetrable jargon, the legalistic framework and the (often necessary) endless bureaucracy, the planning system was founded to serve the public interest – to make places better. That cannot be achieved without an understanding of a place, garnered through learning from its residents. Once built, a place will never be a community without involvement and enjoyment from its residents, and that is always best achieved from a sense of ownership. How can you create this ownership without making people central to the process itself?

Just over 50 years from the celebrated Skeffington Report, which practically invented public consultation in the planning process, slowly but surely some public faith and interest has been created in shaping the places we live. The Localism agenda has further brought local communities into the plan making sphere (a success? Or a NIMBY charter? Maybe more on that in another blog…). However, as we all experience on a day to day basis, public confidence in the planning system remains low, and scepticism of the property sector’s motives remains high.

And no wonder, given the ‘Westferry Farce’, the impenetrable HS2 Inquiry and the quashing of the Heathrow third runway which have all occurred in the last year, all of these very much in the public eye. The message to the public seems to be that planning is a tool for political or economic interest rather than a public service. All this does is reinforce the scepticism that is already rife and undermines all the success stories which planning achieves on a daily basis, many of which don’t make the front pages other than within our profession.

As planning professionals, we have a responsibility to be the bastion for change, through our actions professionally, but also through the type of planning we promote. Are we a top-down, technocratic profession, or a bottom-up, community-led movement? In my view, we are a hybrid of the two, seeking to be a guiding force through a complex framework, helping communities and places to thrive. But the public definitely does not see us that way – we are the enemy, the agents of negative change, through an impenetrable process which takes years to understand.

CV-19 has given us an opportunity for a fresh start, with a much greater understanding of how we can connect with others and a much greater appreciation of the places we live (as my colleagues have reviewed in other blogs in this series). Now is the time to grab hold of this opportunity, educate and innovate, and seek to bring back planning in the public interest, in a manner which the public can understand.

Time to commission a new Skeffington Report, Mr Jenrick?