On the Unique Nature of Spatial Planning as a Discipline

We have just come off consultation on a planning White Paper that nowhere defined what the purpose of planning was and when questioned on this the minister answered in terms of functional outputs (like housing numbers and good design) that could describe a crude bundling together of thematic disciplines rather than the unique nature of planning decision making.

Complex decision making (dealing with wicked problems) is a necessary but not sufficient component.  Many complex decisions have no locational element (such as designing industrial processes). Similarly, locational decision making is a necessary but not sufficient. Many locational decisions are simple, for example in a desert with only one oasis the decision of where you grow your dates is an easy one.

So we might be getting somewhere if we say that spatial planning is about solving complex locational decisions?   Not quite, this might be a good description of operational research but not necessarily of spatial planning.  Operational research solutions are tractable, solvable with models.  Not all spatial planning problems are.  However as long as a spatial planning problem remains intractable then any proposed plan will just be a stab in the dark, and eminently contestable. 

Spatial planning then is the process by which complex locational problems are made tangible and tractable. In decision theory the terms large world and small world problems are used.  Small world problems are tangible, tractable and as such solvable. This requires a process of simplification of complex information and its processing through rapid, simple rules of thumb, known as heuristics. This process is not second best and is not irrational.  The traditional conception of rationality as I have stated on this blog many times is outdated as information always has a cost and you can waste so much energy gathering it you lose the chance of an optimum solution.

Such rules of thumb can involve protypes, what a neighborhood with sustainable connectivity looks like, what services it has what land areas it consumes, and then fitting that the surface of potential sites within your area.

Spatial planning solutions are never single dimensional as spatial solutions solve more than one problem at once.  One of my favorite examples is Watford which had a close by Hospital and football club nether of which could properly expand by themselves. 

The act of planning should start not with vague spatial objectives but with a very short list of the spatial problems (goals) the plan should solve. That us a spatial distribution that achieves certain land use and/or transportation objectives. 

Take a local plan for fictional Anyshire.

The problems goals might be:

  • Find sites for 8,000 homes
  • Achieve net zero CO2 emissions from transport
  • Find a new site for Anyshire Rangers
  • Find sites for 3,000 jobs
  • Find a site for a new reservoir
  • Minimise nitrate run off to Natura 2000 protected sites

This is not to say there cannot be other objectives (e.g. crime reduction, heath etc.) however their achievement cannot be simply evaluated in terms of different distributions of land use.

There also might be some spatial objectives that are clearly spatial but defined in the negative.  This might include strict ‘showstopper’ environmental constraints such as functional flood plain SSSI, ancient woodland etc.  The best way to deal with such constraints is simply to combine them and exclude them as a ‘showstopper’ layer and now the problem surface is simplified and much reduced.

This process is making a distinction between what a plan is seeking its planning problem goals, to how a potential plan is evaluated.  Evaluation should be via a selected subset of SEA objectives that can clearly be measured and evaluated on a site by site basis.  If some cant be used in this way (maybe soil conservation is a good example) they can’t be used in a spatial planning process, at least yet.

In some cases where there is no clear trade offs it may suffice to simplify down to only one evaluation surface – of which CO2 emissions is the most obvious in current circumstances. In many cases however their will be clear tradeoffs, such as between accessible sites and landscape impact, or accessible sites and Green Belt impact.  The art side of planning is to minimize these tradeoffs.  Great care should be taken to reduce the number of evaluation surfaces to no more than two or three, or else the number of options will spiral geometrically.

However where many sites are being considered the combination of such sites might seem to be ‘near infinite’ a term I hear so often from district level planners.  This requires an additional simplification to strategic sites only – a process il’ll describe in a follow up article.

The above is an abbreviated section of some chapters from my forthcoming book on strategic planning methodologies.

Is the Local Plan System Too Broken to Fix?

Most local plans in most places do a reasonable job in allocating for development in the short to medium terms (1 to 10 years).

Most local plans do a terrible job in meeting long terms needs, some even fall down on medium- and short-term needs given the lack of a 5-year supply and failure to update to the latest housing needs.

Hence even those authorities that have finally clawed their way to 5 years supplies and recently adopted plans are only likely to stay there with a continuous flow of permissions granted on non-allocated sites after a very few years. They survive by decisions but not through planning.

There are several reasons for this. 

Firstly, many authorities resistant to putting forward plans in any kind of hurry that meet need in full, as we have discussed on here many times. 

Secondly the land and environmentally constrained nature of some authorities (I’m not including Green Belt here). 

Thirdly the difficulty of many authorities to meet needs by themselves and the continued and increasing problems we see in authorities producing joint plans.  Just look at the South Essex Joint Strategic Plan – will we ever see a draft, its now four years late.  Pass me a hat and salt if it is ever published.

Finally, where long terms strategic sites are proposed the lack of support by government in supporting the infrastructure and means of land value capture to make them work.  North Essex being the prime example, now even more highlighted by the need to take additional housing overspill from London (around 40k a year) now the London Plan has been finalised.

We might well see safe bet de-risked plans.  These plans will meet their own needs only, and in larger unitaries like Shropshire and Wiltshire this may well be possible.  However, the sites chosen will be large urban extensions of the largest towns likely requiring new -road building, which in many cases will be resisted, or included as hybrid monstrosities of distributor roads serving as relief roads (as in Aylesbury Vale (as was) and Milton Keynes, which puts heavy traffic through the middle of rather than around communities), and without the large investment in transit, walking and cycling necessary to create no carbon communities.  The sites that do come forward are likely to be from call for sites for large scale single landowners, and without proactive delivery mechanisms these may be accepted even though they are on remote and car-only served sites.  What ‘strategic planning’ does take place is likely to be motherhood statement non-statutory plans, without housing numbers, as we see in Leicestershire.

So in the absence of a government interested in proactive spatial planning, and only interested in numbers and ‘good design’ however badly land uses are located the default planning will be decisions without planning, just bad planning.  Good local plans are too risky and too painful given a political climate unwilling to de-risk and share the pain. 

It is almost impossible now to make a political case for expensive plan making let alone expensive joint plan making.  The case studies of failure now outrank the case studies of success and the reasons for failure lie outside the control largely of the ‘good’ rule following and pro planning authorities and too much with those, like Stockport, East Devon, West Somerset and South Staffordshire, that refuse to play by the very weak rules.

Bad planning, bad sites, and worse masterplans will become the norm.

This will happen even with zoning as unless these underlying problems are fixed we will still see the majority of housing delivered through discretionary decisions – in this case spot zoning, zoning variances and discretionary design control.  Decisions without planning.

The case for zoning is that it enables good planning, it cannot stop bad planning.

This will not change until we see a fundamental institutional shift from government.  That good planning is a good thing, and a shift in terminology and process will not in its self be sufficient without a return to planning.

Perma-Examinations :- How to Fix Them

Plan examinations lasting years have become the norm. As we have commented on many times they run the risk of discrediting and delaying the whole system. As we set down any canny authority can ask the inspector for a section 20(7) instruction to fix the plan and as such avoid ever being found unsound, at least if they pass the DTC tests.

Planning Resource

Changing local plan examinations to allow “less scope for making significant changes” to submitted plans during the process would help to ensure compliance with the government’s proposed new nine-month limit on such inquiries, the Planning Inspectorate’s (PINS) local plans chief has said.

In the early days of the post 2004 act system inspectors were god, all changes issued from them. Major changes could not be made after submission. The incoming conservative government in 2010 very nearly abolished binding inspectors reports. But they were persuaded of the conceit that changes could only be suggested by LPAS. But the new section 20(7) allowed LPAS to manipulate examinations to never fail. It was an unforseen consequence.

Certainly the nine month limit makes a major new consultation impractical.

A test needs to distinguish between changes needed to refine a plan from significant change to a plans strategy. If a site has been considered and not included at preferred option stage and through SEA that is consultation. For all omissions sites developers should have included their own evidence base at consultation stage if the LPA has not included these and if this is done and open to comment no new consultation should be needed. Nor should there need to be consultation on any change needed to bring a policy into conformance to national policy.

I think the test should be material modifications (not major modifications) should be confined to fixing issues of soundness that emerge through the examination process and where the modification is of a scale not to require a major change to the submitted plan strategy. Where a plan is found unsound it should return to the stage at which the omissions or problems can be rectified.