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Boys Smith: 'Like it or not, the direct planning revolution is coming'

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When it comes to planning, the tectonic plates will have to shift to better reflect what people want and like, says Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets

Ask the question any way you like, but not everyone is happy with how representative democracy works these days,

Perhaps this unease comes from a growing desire for influence, autonomy and control. Or is it just the capacity to crowd-source anything from parliamentary questions to local views on building heights? Who knows, but certainly when it comes to planning, the tectonic plates are going to have to shift to better reflect what people want and like.

We at Create Streets have therefore published our councillors’ guide to winning support for new homes (see attached). At its heart are three principles: building a proper factual understanding of what people like and want, embedding this in strategy and decision-making, and pushing for economic decisions to be made on the basis of long-term economics.

To expand on those core principles, here’s what councillors should do to launch a direct planning revolution and fight for democracy…

1. Find our what actual numerical evidence housing and planning teams have on what types of built form, material, typology and style local people prefer. We have never met any team who can answer this question with statistically robust data.

2. If they don’t have it do some proper research - using pictures and polling to get a usable and meaningful understanding. If they won’t do the research, do it yourself using online polling.

3. Publish the results. Ask officials how they intend to embed this evidence in the council’s strategy and development-control decision-making.

4. Find out if any borough strategy or other rules make it hard to produce the type of built environment that people most prefer. Changes might be necessary.

5. Encourage communities to form neighbourhood forums and use neighbourhood plans not to be NIMBYs but positively to set out the types of urban form and buildings that they like.

6. Don’t be fooled by the old lie that high density must equal high rise or large blocks. High density categorically does not require high rise or large blocks. With the right urban design and planning you can normally achieve high (though not ludicrous) densities within a perfectly conventional street-scape.

7. Don’t be fooled by viability assessments. Every developer we have spoken to about it in private has admitted to us, that you can make them say (nearly) whatever you want. Viability assessments must be transparent.

8. Push for whole-life costings of buildings not just short term economics. Huge buildings’ economics look much less impressive through this prism.

The question is not ‘how do we build more homes?’ but ‘how do we make new homes more popular?’ Like it or not, the direct planning revolution is coming.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise and urban environment think tank encouraging low-rise urban homes in terraced streets

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