The Raynsford Review is quite a feat but David Rudlin is ultimately disappointed

David Rudlin_index

The pages of this journal have carried a number of articles about the permitted development of offices into flats. The 100,000 or so units that have been created in this way since 2010, without planning permission or housing standards may have helped the government improve its housing numbers but it is a modern-day scandal that has the potential to blow up into a news story that is every bit as bad as the exploits of Peter Rackman in the 1960s.

This was the impetus for the Town and Country Planning Association review of the planning system, chaired by Nick Raynsford, former housing and planning minister in the Blair government and now chair of the TCPA. Just as the slum conditions at the end of the 19th century prompted the creation of the TCPA, so the scandal of tiny slum flats in former offices prompted them to ask why so little has been achieved over the intervening 120 years.

The resulting report, published at the end of last year, runs to well over a hundred pages and includes 11 themes, 10 propositions and 24 recommendations. It has been drawn up by an incredibly well-informed task force and received 200 submissions following the call for evidence. Pulling all of this together has been a massive task and I would recommend anyone to read the chapters on the history of planning and the current planning system.

It is a story of idealism and pragmatism that has been worn down by successive governments, leaving us with a system that is so complex that, as one of the witnesses suggests, is now too complex for any one person to understand.

>> Also read: A new low in office-to-residential conversions

>> Also read: Letwin’s report could change everything

It is a story of idealism and pragmatism that has been worn down by successive governments, leaving us with a system that is so complex that, as one of the witnesses suggests, is now too complex for any one person to understand.

Raynsford’s conclusion is that our system, as it was set up in 1947, is fundamentally sound, but it has been destroyed by endless tinkering by politicians who don’t understand it. It lists 16 major legislative changes that have been enacted over the last two decades and points out that we have had eight ministers since 2010 compared to just 4 between 1945 and 1960. Many of these politicians see the planning system as “socialist”, “centralised”, “technocratic”, and the “enemy of enterprise”. So that all the legislative tinkering has sought to weaken the system in order to lift the burden of red tape on poor beleaguered developers.

The report warns at one point against a nostalgic harking back to a golden age of planning but doesn’t entirely avoid falling into this trap itself. Because of this the recommendations fundamentally end up disappointing.

They do not amount to a radical rethink of the system but rather a plea to make it simpler and more effective, to be more focused on social and sustainable goals, to be more inclusive and people-centred, and for everyone to just get on a bit better (recommendation 2 calls for a “conversation” between developers, planners and civil society).

There are some radical elements in there, including endorsement for the Letwin Review that I discussed in a previous column, but it doesn’t, for example, really get to grips with land value capture despite identifying this as a major issue. In short the message is that we all need to pull our socks up, try much harder and get back to the idealism that lay behind the radical system created in 1947.

The key point is made way back on page 18 when describing the 1947 system. It points out that the British planning system was set up to be “discretionary”, unlike the zonal systems adopted in most other countries. In those places the zoning plan includes rules that are not up for discussion, everyone knows where they stand, developers are crystal clear about what can be built on every site and, once the rules are agreed, no one needs to be consulted.

The British system is designed to be more “flexible” based on the professional judgement of planners and the input of politicians. As the report says, all of the arguments about British planning stem from this distinction. This is why our system is based on endless argument, repeated consultation, meddling by politicians and perpetual conflict.

It would be fine if the result was well-considered plans tempered by the heat of debate. But that of course is not what happens. Our plans are shaped by who argues hardest and has the greatest resources. Fixing this was probably too great a leap for the TCPA which is too invested in the messy, collaborative, political process that we have created. At a couple of points the report asks us to choose between a system that is “painting by numbers” and one that is like “painting the Sistine Chapel”. When anyone uses an analogy like that you know which one they prefer – but in this case I’m afraid they are wrong.