Buckle up for Buckeroo or Preparing for Complexity?

Ed Watson
Ed Watson

Ed is a Place Specialist, focused on regeneration, place-shaping and providing strategic expertise to councils and businesses to ensure the delivery of high quality places that are economically and socially vibrant, whilst minimising impact on the environment.

The world of development, planning and architecture never stands still. Often it feels like we are struggling to keep pace with what is needed to get the basics done, let alone to make truly successful places. It’s also a challenge to get to grips with the ever-increasing levels of complexity that need to be navigated to get a scheme over the line; initially to secure planning permission and then if you are lucky, to get it built.

I call this constant change and increasing complexity the ‘planning Buckeroo’ (it could equally be referring to architecture (or policing, or health)) . For those too young to remember, Buckeroo was a 1970’s children’s game where the players took turns to load a small plastic donkey with all sorts of tools until it couldn’t take any more and ‘bucked’ the whole lot off. Needless to say that the last player to add a tool before it bucked lost the game.

I’m lucky enough to have worked in planning and development in local government for nearly 30 years and then to have spent the last five years advising a range of public and private sector organisations including BoonBrown. During this time I have seen ever more things loaded onto the planning donkey, and so it is no surprise that its legs are starting to wobble.

Given this complexity it is more important than ever to understand the challenges and motivations of our colleagues in other professions. I hope that current planning, engineering, and architecture courses pay more attention to understanding and working effectively with other professions than mine did. Shout out to the excellent @New London Architecture and @Future of London/Manchester who do great work to bridge this gap, alongside two wheeled versions such as @club Peloton and others.

So, what sort of complexity and change is coming down the track in relation to architecture and planning? Setting aside the macro impacts of the cost-of-living crisis and the failure of the post-Brexit economic phoenix to rise from the ashes, there are a few suggestions below:

Firstly, the Government is still searching for the precise combination to unlock the future shape of the planning system. How to allow the right things – let’s call it well designed and supported places –  to happen in the right locations, but quicker. All while ensuring communities have a genuine opportunity to have their say and benefit from the outcome.

But do we need this change at all? Some might look at places like Kings Cross and say with the right teams and attitudes on both sides it clearly works. However, there are many places where the opportunity for good decisions and outcomes is missed.  For my money I would suggest leaving the system as it is and resourcing it properly – particularly local Government. Also more talking up the great work of our planners and architects.  Less trash talking please.

Can we take a few tools off the donkey? Probably not, but perhaps they can be made lighter and easier to use? In the next year the dials of the Government machine should whirr and click into place and the answer emerge. Or depending on how radical the answers are, they may not. See the next point.

Secondly, there will be a new Government in the next 18 months. If the predictions of commentators (and some Conservative MP’s it would seem as they are not standing again) are to be believed, then this will not be another Conservative Government. However, whoever is in power we should be prepared for more change – perhaps more radical and speedier if it’s Labour? Hopefully they will want to make big decisions early, having learnt from their failure to be more radical when first elected in 1997? If so, what would be the implications of Labour’s recent announcement on securing land for housing at prices more akin to their pre-planning permission/allocation value? What about ‘sensible’* release of the green belt?

Thirdly, some of the current headaches will start to clear – perhaps leading to other complexity – but at least removing the waste of time and energy that it currently takes to work in a world of uncertainty. See Tom’s last blog about 2nd stairs; but also where things are going with nutrient neutrality; national policy support for life sciences; or funding infrastructure etc.

Fourthly, the increased focus on social value will continue. Particularly how all players in the ‘development system’ can do more to address net zero, support people into work, invest in local communities and so on. It is exciting, and a bit sad because it has taken so long, to see how quickly things have started to move since companies have been required to report on their ESG performance. This requirement now extends to 1,300 of our biggest businesses. It has started to cascade through the supply chain and that is a good thing. Expect and demand more.

Finally, and this is more of a wish based on being a parent whose children need somewhere to live rather than a prediction. It is also nothing new. When, oh when, will we really try, really hard, to access the views of those who are currently excluded from the system and whose voices are not heard when deciding planning applications. How can we give weight in decisions to those who would benefit from a proposal? Perhaps we can take a punt and say that for every objection there are ten people on a housing waiting list who would support it? Too often politicians and planning committees are swayed by the vocal few who are ‘in the room’ and who think they have something to lose and little to gain from a new housing scheme in their area. I know this is not the case everywhere, and I applaud brave politicians and good officers up and down the country, but I know it happens in lots of places. Young people and those on low incomes need homes. Pre-loved or new doesn’t matter, but its existence and affordability does. This doesn’t take legislation, just willing decision makers.

So, be prepared for more change and if you can, take a walk in some else’s shoes – perhaps a planner,  an architect or a young person. You might find that you learn something from the discomfort.