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We must change the way we think to avoid planning delays

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Discussion of the planning of essential new housing currently focuses on the supply of land and the technology of delivery.

The government's solution is to build it off-site (because that's in vogue) and deliver it where no one is available to complain (because that's easy and looks strategic).

This option is attractive primarily because it circumvents the development control regime. Why? Because the democratic activity of planning is one of the few remaining areas where individuals have a voice. National government is too big and distant, and local government, while near and small, is emasculated; but the words development and planning will rally previously disaffected neighbours in the chance to have a say.

Protest is understandable; the David and Goliath battle has appeal. It is thanks to such battles that huge swathes of our towns and cities have been saved from the blight of motorways (only to sadly ossify as conservation areas).

Similarly, numerous species of wildlife now live within developments in well-protected sanctuaries.

As a result, consultation has become a key new activity in development - from the mightiest to the most humble, professionals present schemes and participate in (but never lead) workshops. Much is learned from this democratic engagement and few would say otherwise. There are, however, problems. People are naturally conservative. They don't want development in their street (in principle yes, but in practice no); they certainly don't want over-development (anything beyond existing density); and they are most definitely unhappy about modern buildings (which would look good somewhere else).

The outcome of all this consultation is that small groups of individuals, acting democratically if not always with tolerance, are having an impact that far outstrips their self-proclaimed mandate; and planners acting professionally are for legal reasons forming previously unimaginable alliances with clients. The latter because planning committees, consisting of councillors confronted by protesting prospective voters, are likely to reach conclusions that debunk officers'advice and their own Unitary Development Plan. I was witness to a recent application where, in the space of a few moments, the chairman used his casting vote to force a committee not to defer a difficult decision, as a councillor voted against the scheme to ensure that the committee was tied, and then used his casting vote, once again as committee chairman, to pass the scheme.

It makes a good story; it was also a farce.

So what of the possible solutions? The most fundamental is to change the mindset of planning from one of development control to one of development design:

identifying areas of opportunity for new buildings constructed to new densities. These 'densification areas' (an invention of Roger Zogolovitch), the counterpart to conservation areas, can then be the subject of consultation and democratic debate. Who will pay for all this? The applicants; the most significant delay and risk in any project is not in construction, but the time spent in planning. This is why planning approval has become a tradable commodity and the biggest generator of value.

If changes are not forthcoming, we will remain mired in a world of planning delay and development by stealth and compromise - a world where it is easier for government to propose the development of prefabricated housing on uninhabited floodplains than risk fallout from democratic debate of the inherently more complex consideration of brownfield development.

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