Planning is a Leadership Activity

From:  Town and Country Planning 2007


It surprises people when I say that.

For some local politicians certainly, ‘planning’ has come to mean dealing with, or preferably avoiding, those tricky local development proposals which arouse such fear amongst their constituents – fear that comes as much as from the not undeserved reputation of developers as from the real content of the development itself.  All the legal pitfalls that councillors think they face don’t help their self-confidence either.

So fundamental questions have been getting lost. Being involved with planning has come to mean “how do I cope with someone else’s proposal to change things”.  What it ought to mean is “what do I want my community, my place to be like?  And how do I get there?” Those are questions I rarely hear being asked. People skate around them – but never directly ask them. Not asking the questions means they don’t get answers.

The first answer to the question “what do I want my place to be like” is very often – ‘just as it is thank you very much’ or sometimes even ‘just as it was before you messed it up’.

But delve a little further and talk around it and new answers surface.  Some more houses because we’re short of them, especially affordable ones. Better public transport. Better green space, more community facilities, a new school, local shops, safer.  But don’t spoil the character of the place, its heritage, the parts of it we like.

With those kinds of answers, what then is the job for planners and for politicians who sit on planning committees?  Does it remain sufficient to allocate land use and control the development that then may or may not come forward?  Does that behaviour deliver those answers, the places people want?  It might. But equally it might not. The job for politicians and planners – in a profession that has to be much more porous in its boundaries with engineers, economists, biologists and accountants – is to find ways to make things happen, to turn our place into the place we want it to be.  To see that houses, for instance, don’t just get planned for – but actually get built and built well, making a place where people will want to settle.

It was something of a novelty when, in my time in the engine room, chairing the committee in Edinburgh, I said I wasn’t interested in plans or planning policies in themselves.  Even more when I said I wasn’t overmuch concerned with the only measure of a competent Planning Department which the Accounts Commission seem to adopt – how many applications do you process within a set number of weeks.  Never mind the quality feel the width.  What I was interested in was securing quality development on the ground, which meant the planners getting out there and making things happen. And the politicians too.

It’s no good either for officers or councillors to stand back from that ‘making things happen’ process. Councillors in particular must engage with developers and potential developers from the earliest stage. It’s their job, representing the people of their council area as they do, to convey to those developers their political aspirations for  what they want their place to be like. If it’s not their job, as leaders in the local community, then who’s is it?  If councillors, especially those who lead planning committees, don’t talk to developers how will developers know what politicians want them to do?

That goes completely against the councillors’ code of conduct – which assumes that if you put any councillor in a room with a developer, money is bound to change hands – but it should happen.  It shouldn’t, of course, happen behind closed doors, nor over more than commonplace hospitality, but meetings between councillors and developers at the earliest pre-application stage right up to when an application is submitted, with officers present, minuted and the minutes published would demonstrate to everyone that councillors are doing the job they were elected to do.

And developers deserve and need that guidance.  The best ones are risking often millions of pounds without any sense as to where the people who will make the final decision stand on the issue.  The bad ones need a serious talking to, or even sending away, if they are not prepared to raise their game.

The present attitude, fuelled by fear of breaking that ill-considered code of conduct, and the public censure that naturally follows, is often that of ‘never talk to a developer’, never even consider a development until the final stage when it comes into the Committee room, the last chance saloon.  This isn’t the right way to make the best of our cities and our communities.  Elected councillors and the investors who build our cities need to talk to each other. It’s a derogation of councillors’ leadership role not to. The code and the culture behind it need changing. Sir John Egan said that in his review of skills for sustainable communities, but nothing has happened, not in Scotland anyway.

Back to that question – what do I want my place to be like? It needs to be asked and answered by communities and developers as well as planning professionals and local political leaders, and politicians will find themselves digging deep into political values to articulate an answer. Once answered, there still remains the question ‘how do I get there?’. The imagination, courage, skills and understandings necessary to respond effectively to that challenge are distinguished largely by their variability of supply.

Delineating the imagination, courage and all the other personal qualities of local leaders is for another place. As for the skills and understandings necessary for leaders in planning and city-making, they fall, perhaps, into four sets:  place-making, policy-making, deal-making and decision-making.

Place-making seems to be the most difficult task, or the most difficult to have people address.  Perhaps it’s because most of the good places we enjoy break all the planning rules we have put in place – and the insecurity of working outside rules is rarely welcomed!  However, an understanding of the elements of what makes a “good” place is now growing in the planning profession, rules or not. Councillors need to use that understanding and realise that place-making, urban design, whatever we call it, is one of the most powerful tools open to them.  It enables them to shape social interactions, to promote fair use of all that a place offers, to control carbon emissions, to encourage tolerance, promote prosperity and much more. In fact, to shape their own answer to Nye Bevan’s fundamental political question – “who benefits?” Urban design is politically important.  It can be used to shape a whole city as well as a single neighbourhood. Unfortunately, key professions allied to planning can still find it an overly soft concept; to many it’s about nice architecture and water features. Not what real men do. Leaders, once they understand, will need to summon all their skills of clarity and persuasion in support of their place-making task. And the courage to stamp on a few feet too.

Then comes policy-making. Urban design, shaping your place the way you want it, isn’t going to stand up in court, or a planning inquiry, without the policy to back it up. And thereafter, to survive the development roller-coaster, policy is going to need some sharp edges. Those edges will come from an absolute concentration on delivering quality on the ground, a focus on making the right kind of development happen. Innovative and effective policy won’t be about process management or finding rules to hide behind. New ideas will also benefit from attention to ‘branding’; it’s clear to me that if you want to change people’s behaviour, then you have to change the way they think. To quote George Lakoff “Re-framing is social change.”  Branding helps communicate the re-framing. The ‘Merton rule’ is a strong and important policy concept made even better by brilliant branding. Everyone knows the Merton Rule – and lots follow its example. Innovation in policy content and presentation are crucial for leaders in planning and we’d all benefit if there were ways and structures to share those innovations around the country, learning from each others triumphs and failures. Part of a councillor’s job should be to travel to learn – known to the journalistic trade as ‘junkets’ and therefore, unless we re-frame that branding, most unlikely to happen.

Deal-making is an essential part of the planning process. It’s heresy to say that, especially to those who think that council decision-makers shouldn’t talk to developers. It’s heresy because the current ‘planning gain’ system assumes that development is always in some way detrimental to its location and that once the shape and nature of that development is finalised then the developer will pay towards ‘mitigating’ the impact of that development.  But what we all really know is that there are two parts to the development equation – one is that development, especially where there is a change of use, creates value for the land owner, the other part is that any development needs publicly-provided infrastructure and services for it to be viable.  That’s hugely over-simplified, of course, and each part of the equation varies enormously, but inside that equation lies the opportunity for a deal that allows some of the value uplift to go towards funding the infrastructure.  It’s a deal that’s beneficial to both sides because it helps make development happen. Leaders in planning should therefore be deal-makers too. And they will increasingly need to devise and use innovative financial and investment mechanisms if they are to make the deals, and the places, they want to make. Sometimes the deal might even be a factor in land use allocation. Edinburgh’s published vision for the city in 2040 suggests expanding the city envelope in fingers of urban development, with ‘bones’ of tram lines along the fingers and green wedges between them pushing into the city.  There’s every reason, if the investment mechanisms can be devised, for the allocation of land for development in the fingers to be based at least in part on which landowner is prepared to enter into a deal to contribute to its infrastructure.

Decision-making about the nature and direction of place ought always to happen within the democratic area.  Often it doesn’t.  Often it rests simply with the developer, which is the fault of the public authorities not the developer. If planning decision-makers wait until the ‘last chance saloon’ before they get involved, developers, not the decision-makers, will frame the decision.  But re-gaining real decision-making brings its own issues. One of the early shocks when you are first elected councillor is that every decision you make hurts someone – local government shapes the currency of everyday life and there are always two sides to a coin. Decisions which suit personal interests are simply nodded at, pocketed; whereas decisions which hurt are stored and resented.  It’s why politicians are disliked. And it’s why, backed by a general distrust of developers (‘only in it for the money’), it’s so much easier for councillors to oppose a local development than support it – a decision which hurts nobody, at least not immediately. Leaders in planning need strategies to turn the ‘right’ decisions, the ones that are beneficial to the local area, into ‘acceptable’ decisions, where any immediate hurt or disagreement is set aside because the process has been seen to be right and all voices heard.  It will mean, amongst other things, getting the public consultation right – going early, when options are still possible, rather than late, when everything has been worked out;  being quick over final decisions because delay just allows more worries to  be constructed; stating clearly the changes and compromises that have been made rather than just slipping them into the final report. With insufficient care, it’s always possible to turn a positive response into a negative one, rarely the reverse. And right decisions are worth the detailed attention – they turn your place into the place you want it to be.