We challenge the existing,

the conventional, what's been accepted

Placemaking: following or leading?

5th May 2015

“In ‪placemaking, markets are a means to an end. Our current UK ‪planning system does not reflect this adequately”

That was my off-the-cuff response to a recent tweet by Richard Blyth, Head of Policy at the RTPI: “Melbourne has gone from a dump to a livable city. How? Not through following markets but by place leadership”. Richard quickly came back to me: “How should it reflect this? Any ideas?”; quickly followed by my old (now ex!) friend, Paul Collins from Nottingham Trent University, urging me to “Discuss – 5,000 word essay!” With great tweets come great responsibilities!

Before going any further, I should explain that what I am going to write is based on perception and experience, rather than specific research: it is my opinion. Inspired by the creative pre-election approach of our political leaders and would-be leaders, I am going to say it, see how it goes down – and then check out the details later! So, here we go.

My starting point is that good place leadership requires a sound understanding of place dynamics – the interconnected and interacting systems and activities that both drive and maintain a place and its communities. In market economies, market forces clearly play an important part in place-dynamics – but not the only part. Good places – places that work well and can support the lives of healthy, prosperous communities – are rarely the result of just following the market: they may have to be delivered largely through a market-oriented system, but that does not mean that they are shaped wholly by following market forces. Good places respond to much wider – and much more complex – social, cultural and environmental needs and aspirations; they support economic prosperity but they support much more too.

The English planning system seems to struggle with this, probably because, nationally – collectively – we seem to have a somewhat naive perception of the interplay between market forces and…well, just about everything else really. We accept, with very little questioning, patently illogical – or, at best, simplistic – fallacies concerning the relationship between private sector and public sector. The most simplistically fallacious is that it is only the private sector that creates wealth. It does not take too much thought to realise that private sector businesses depend on, for example: being able to employ people who are educated (mostly through publicly-provided education) and healthy (mostly through a combination of education and the NHS); and, having good transport and other infrastructure (mostly provided and supported, if not operated, by public funding). Public investment in social and physical infrastructure makes essential contributions to wealth creation, just as the private sector businesses that depend on that infrastructure do. Each depends on the other. So, the simplistic notion that the private sector creates wealth and the public sector spends it is not just inaccurate, but dangerously misleading if it is applied to planning and placemaking. It leads to a non-interventionist approach, based on following, not leading, and based on abdication of public responsibilities.

That, then, is where I was coming from when I tweeted that “In ‪placemaking, markets are a means to an end. Our current UK ‪planning system does not reflect this adequately”, but I need to elaborate on this a little further to start to explain what it is about the current English planning system – or, at least, the way it is presently conducted – that concerns me.

Let’s look at Local Plans. It is absolutely right, to my mind, that these should be based on sound evidence. That evidence must include an understanding of how “the market” works; how its workings relate to key considerations such as demand, need and development feasibility; and how interventions may affect market behaviour. There is, however, a huge difference between understanding the market and just blindly following its lead.

Planning is all about intervening: steering development and change in one direction rather than another and doing so, not for the sake of interfering, but to further the public interest. There are times when the market delivers perfectly well without intervention, but there are also times when it will not – cannot – deliver the social, economic and environmental wealth we need, collectively, unless it is steered in that direction (delivering, in the right places, the numbers and range of houses we need is an example). This requires an approach to planning that is market-aware, but not market-following; an approach that recognises that it is as legitimate for planning decisions to influence market decisions as the other way round.

I believe that current national planning guidance in England correctly requires local planning authorities to understand the workings of the housing market in their areas and to identify sites that landowners and developers are already interested in building on. It is also essential that local needs – for housing, employment and much more – must be assessed objectively. However, it seems to me that the process of comparing quantitative information about potential land supply with quantitative information about demand all-too-often, overshadows the qualitative need to steer and manage development in ways that create sustainable places that work well and provide great environments for life, as well as meeting quantitative needs. This is why planners – professional and political – need the understanding, vision and confidence to play leading roles in the processes of placemaking. In that context a sound understanding of the working of markets is essential, just as an understanding of how a power tool works is essential in using it safely and efficiently to make a piece of furniture. Market forces are tools that can be used to make good places, but they can be dangerous and destructive if not handled and guided with care – and that is where I believe current guidance falls far short of giving the lead necessary to make sure our real, collective requirements are thoughtfully met. We need a system that recognises that it is just as important for planning interventions to influence market forces as it is for them to be aware of market wishes.

I’m now going to give more thought to what such a system might look like – so if you have any suggestions, please let me know! @SteveKempOP /  @thinkopenplan / steve@thinkopenplan.com