Pruning away the clogging deadwood of regional planning
Published by Andy Boddington on Thursday, October 18th, 2012 at 16:50 pm
"There is a branch of human knowledge known as symbolic logic, which can be used to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language. As you see, something like ninety percent of the South East Plan boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner: Impacts of Abolition: None!” With apologies to Isaac Asimov.
Way back in the 1940s, the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined that mathematicians might control a future galactic empire. In Asimov’s tale of Foundation and Empire, Mayor Hardin applied symbolic logic to the lengthy Treaty of Anacreon proving it to be little more than meaningless gobbledygook.
This in essence is what the communities department’s consultants have done with the South East Plan. True, their repetitive and at times impenetrable text lacks the elegance and drama of Asimov’s prose. But the essence of the 1,374 pages of the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the revocation of the South East Plan – the grand planning treaty for the region – is that the Plan mattered little and abolishing it will matter even less.
Regional government has thankfully had a brief life. John Major instituted the Government Offices of the Regions in 1994. Four years later, John Prescott conjured up the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Assemblies. Now those assemblies, agencies and offices are no more. People argue that councils need to work together. They do and they are currently doing so, often across regional boundaries. Of course regional planning and the regional development agencies delivered useful things. But an extra bureaucratic tier of government has never been needed to achieve them.
Regional planning did little more than paralyse councils and communities in red tape. It took six tortuous years to compile and agree the South East Plan. The opportunity cost was huge for the hundreds of planners, councillors, developers and campaigners involved (but it was admittedly a boon for planning consultants and lawyers).
Abolishing the regional plans and their counterparts, the regional economic strategies, is proving nearly as convoluted as putting them in place. Revoking a development plan requires a strategic environmental assessment, a point the government failed to accept at first. More than two years after the planned abolition date, we have finally got the assessments for abolishing three of the seven regional strategies outside London.
We now know that the South East Plan matters barely at all to planning and the environment in the South East. Regeneration, green belts, biodiversity, infrastructure, and much else will go on just the same with or without the Plan. True, the assessment thinks that housebuilding is likely to slow down in the short term and fewer affordable houses may be built – but that is happening anyway. There might be not as many wind farms and some extra building on greenfield. But on a regional scale, life with or without the plan is not going to make much of a difference.
Regional planning tied the planning system up in bureaucratic knots for more than a decade and distracted councils from the most important issue – getting their local plans in place.
So, I’d like to make a proposal. Instead of subjecting development plans to the soundness tests of the National Planning Policy Framework, why not analyse them with symbolic logic instead? Then we might know straight away whether they amount to anything more than clogging deadwood in the planning system.