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Here's a new plan: Straight talking

Plain speaking when it comes to planning could help the public reconnect with the process, says Rory Olcayto

When the going gets tough, as our government has found in its dealing with Libya over the past week or so, there’s always a simple way to claw back some dignity: choose an easy target, the planning system for example, and give it a right good kicking.

And that is just what the government has done. Business secretary Vince Cable called the planning system ‘bizarre’ and an ‘impediment to growth’ at a trade and industry dinner in London last week. David Cameron, at the Conservative Party spring conference in Cardiff on Saturday, went further still, calling planners the ‘enemies of enterprise’. It’s not the massive cuts that are slowing down recovery, according to the prime minister, it’s the ‘town hall officials who take forever with those planning decisions that can be make or break for a business – and the investment and jobs that go with it’.

Few architects will disagree with Cameron’s observations on the pace of planning decisions, but the vindictive, bullying tone directed at fellow design professionals leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. It is just a matter of weeks remember since education secretary Michael Gove accused architects of ‘creaming off cash’. Why the vitriol?

Two points: first up, the timing of Cable and Cameron’s attacks coincides with MIPIM, the world’s biggest property fair, and at which Britain is to be celebrated in some form or another, as ‘country of honour’. We must, after all, be seen to be open for business, even if there’s not much apparent on the shelves.

Second, is that the main reason for launching an assault on the planning system using direct, definitive language is not, despite appearing that way, to demoralise the profession, but to somehow reconnect the public to the planning process and bring about a culture where the right things are built for the right reasons and in the right places.

With this in mind, it is the right time to call for similarly direct language in the government’s proposed national planning policy framework. At a roundtable at MIPIM last year, Andrew Donald, a regeneration boss with Brent Council, pretty much said as much. ‘I’d take out all the demands around environmental and transport requirements in one fell swoop,’ he said, ‘and replace that with something to the point about what development is going to make to local area, written in plain English.’

At the very least, it should stray far, far away from the mindless dross one is forced to read in the government’s new Health and Social Care Bill, a similarly ambitious and controversial nationwide overhaul. For example: ‘To further incentivise improved outcomes and financial performance, consortia will receive a “quality premium” based on the outcomes achieved for patients and their financial performance,’ writes health minister Andrew Lansley, when what he really means is, ‘patients are now customers with a pound sign floating above their heads’. Enough to make you sick, isn’t it?

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