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A cunning plan

May 2018 Issue

‘Planning’ can often seem anything but planned – with a healthy dose of ‘How on earth did you get permission for that?!’ sprinkled on top.

While its ambitions are noble and its processes transparent – the outcomes can often still be very surprising to the wider public.

The modern profession as we now know it came into being as a result of ‘The Town and Country Planning Act 1947’, brought into law in 1948. Before then you could do pretty much what you liked with the land that you owned - and it remains an enduring and delicious irony to me that so many of the conversations that I’ve had with planners over the years have ended up focusing on their desire for me to design buildings that hark back to a built environment that existed before they started planning it.

i.e. Before 1948.

That may be a little unfair though – in 1948 Britain was even less than just a post-war shattered nation, it was also a nation losing its empire and the confidence that went with that. The war may have been won but I’m not convinced the country felt much like a winner. Rationing continued until 1954 and we had been thrown out of the frying pan of World War 2 into the icy fire of Cold War Europe – all the while trying to build new housing, using a labour force too broken to do so, against a backdrop of nearly 500,000 homes destroyed thanks to enemy action. It’s not surprising that the Windrush generation were invited to the UK to help.

So a plan was needed. And the Town and Country Planning Act came in to being.

But as Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th-century head of the Prussian army, famously observed “No plan ever survives first contact”

Much the same could be said of the Town and Country Planning Act – which since its inception has been substantially revised or amended on multiple occasions and with increasing frequency. While the National Planning Policy Framework 2012 tried to simplify things, after a few years of trying to square the circle between the government’s national targets and localism agenda, this has become, amusingly and inevitably, more complicated with the latest set of 2018 revisions.

And once again we find ourselves in a bit of a mess as we try to build the houses we need – this time advised by an expensive army of planning consultants, communications agencies, and dare I say it architects. But we’re still mostly only managing to build fairly crummy boxes. And not enough of them. This year we’re already 14% down on last year’s output for the first 3 months – and pro-rated that’s knocking on 100,000 short of the government’s target of 300,000 for this year.

The process and outcome of planning legislation is very public. The public participate during consultation and the public are affected by the spaces and places that appear once a project is built. I often think about the planning application process in terms of a simple matrix:

Not compliant with policy + locally hated = planning permission not granted

Not Compliant with policy + locally supported = planning permission granted

Not compliant with policy + locally supported = planning permission granted (by the local committee)

Compliant with policy + locally hated = planning permission granted (by an appeal inspector)

Thought of in this way the available outcomes are actually pretty good – three planning permissions granted for every planning permission refused. It’s just a shame the process is not quite that simple. But then it’s in the space between what the planning rules appear to allow, and how they appear to be interpreted, that provide the greatest opportunity. That’s one of my favourite things about the planning rules you’ll find across the huge diversity of all local authority plans – one same consistent thread - the room for manoeuvre.

This leads me to offer my most cunning top tip for a successful planning permission.

Start telling stories.

As humans we are fundamentally narrative animals. We understand the world around us through the stories we tell each other. And the great thing about stories is that they allow us to break ‘the rules’. They give us the opportunity to challenge the status quo and adopt a new path. Take one of the greatest stories ever told for example – The Thousand and One Nights. The story opens by telling us ‘the rules’ – that every night a bitter emperor will take a new wife and then have them executed in the morning. That’s until one special evening his latest new wife arrives and starts telling him a bedtime story so compelling that he can’t bring himself to execute her until he’s heard the end of it. So she keeps the story going, night after night, until she becomes the story herself - marrying the emperor and surviving, literally (& literally) to tell the tale.

In an environment as confusing, complex and partisan as the planning process I’ve often found the most successful way to achieve any planning permission is to try to build narratives too. To answer the questions that arise with the beginnings of a story. Preferably a story in which the questioner recognises their own voice and takes ownership of it themselves. Stories bring us together, and provide understanding of each other’s hopes and fears. It’s precisely this insight into someone else’s point of view that makes them exciting and unexpected – because that someone else is not you.

So do I have a favourite story I like to tell? Is there a question that I’m most often asked?

Well yes as it happens:

‘How on earth did you get planning permission for that?’

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