A Much Needed Dose of Common Sense: RTPI Asserts the Value of Effective Planning

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As we have noted in the past, economic concerns are generally considered paramount in Scottish public policy meaning any claim of ‘economic benefit’ is a bit of a trump card. In a cruel twist, this has been bad news for planning leading to a drive for ‘efficient’ rather than effective decisions. Planning costs developers time and money, reducing return on investment hence: less planning =greater economic growth (= greater prosperity) is, to many, a fairly obvious maxim.

It is however a maxim Planning Democracy disagrees with, and we’re not alone.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) is a membership organisation, this year celebrating its centenary, representing over 23,000 planning professionals and amateurs worldwide with 2,100 members in Scotland. Its purpose is to advance the science and art of planning for the benefit of the public.

Last month the RTPI published ‘The Value of Planning’ a report by University of Glasgow Professor David Adams and University of Sheffield Professor Craig Watkins that (along with twin publication ‘Fostering Growth’) seeks to establish the true economic value of effective planning, countering claims from those who frame planning only in terms of its costs.

The report takes a broad view of planning as a process which “helps to create the kinds of places where people want to live, work, relax and invest” – known as ‘shaping places’ or ‘placemaking’. This means planning is not merely a procedural hurdle as many believe, but a discipline based on working towards positive outcomes for an area. If done right planning adds economic, as well as social and environmental value, if done wrong the consequences can be devastating.

Whenever planning adds value to development activity, the benefits will be reflected in stronger economic growth and enhanced development viability. Conversely areas that are poorly planned and where ‘negative externalities’ (such as congestion, overcrowding or pollution) threaten long-term investment value, can create significant costs for society and individuals.

Effective placemaking requires carefully integrated and coherent development, with care being taken to ensure that the needs of all stake-holders in an area are addressed. This does not happen by accident: the market, if left to its own devices, will not make successful places.

It is rarely in the short-term interests of individual developers to work co-operatively with others in the area, or construct high quality public spaces that do not generate capital. Good planning is vital here to ensure places are constructed to be ‘more than the sum of their parts’, providing benefits to all parties.

This seems so obvious as to be trivial, but planning is nonetheless under attack. In their report Adams and Watkins hit out at several studies, some of which are referenced in government policy documents, for neglecting the full breadth of planning. They argue that these reports focus only on the ‘costs’ of development management neglecting “the value of planning much more broadly”.

These arguments tend to follow neo-classical economic methodologies where it is assumed people are rational, informed beings whose decisions are based on a desire to further their own ends. In a world inhabited by ‘homo-economicus’ free un-regulated markets are the most efficient way for goods to be equitably distributed. Supply and demand, and natural competition will even out for the good of all, as long as unnecessary costs (like planning permission) don’t disrupt supply.

In practice however, we do not live in this world, and we are not homo-economicus. People are not as well informed, rational or self-serving as these arguments suggest. In truth decisions are often based on habits, gut-feelings or rules of thumb and it is impossible to have full knowledge of our options. To address this issue many alternative branches of economics have developed. Thus a full appreciation of the economic impact of planning must take these into account. According to Adams and Watkins this hasn’t been done with researchers preferring apparently ‘precise’ answers, over accurate solutions.

While the ability to develop what might appear to be precise measures of the ‘economic costs’ of planning’ is highly seductive, this apparent precision should not be mistaken for truth.

This logic renders any recommendations drawn from neo-classical economics alone completely one-sided, by ignoring the bigger picture and neglecting the benefits brought by the planning system.

They appear to be arguing that the price of planning is too high without telling us what we have been purchasing.”

Bringing down the costs and loosening the requirements for gaining planning permission can only result in lower quality development. The true value of planning cannot be overstated and must not be overlooked because not all development is good developmenteven if it does increase our GDP.

If planning is under attack, it is an issue for all of us. If effective decision making is undermined by a drive to be more ‘efficient’ we will all have to pay the price of lower quality places. This will have significant ramifications not just on our health and well-being, but also on the profitability of our ventures and investments. Who wants to visit or move to a city without good quality parks and public spaces? Or where all the buildings look the same, or are poor quality? Who wants to invest in a development without any certainty that the surrounding land will be developed appropriately? Or where externalities such as congestion have already had significant impact?

Planning decisions are long term and impact on virtually every aspect of our lives. If they are to be made based on economic benefit, we need to be completely certain that we understand what that means and we need to consider and understand multiple economic perspectives in order to truly grasp the value of effective plannning.

Efficient planning might be what’s best for developers in the short term, but effective planning is what is best for us all in the long term. They are not the same thing.


author: Rurigdh McMeddes

All opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Planning Democracy

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