Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
Shaking up planning
The Government wants to improve the planning system. George Lambrick sees opportunities and dangers ahead. A more streamlined system could be worse
The Government - initially Gordon Brown at the Treasury, and more recently the new Transport and Local Government Secretary, Steven Byers - have flagged the biggest shake-up of the planning system in England since it was introduced in 1947. A Green Paper is due this autumn.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly has recently consulted on a complete overhaul of planning guidance (ppg Wales), and the Scottish Executive is currently consulting on a radical review of the framework for strategic planning in Scotland. In addition to all this, the Government's long-awaited response to the review of policy towards the historic environment in England is due this month.
Planning is hardly the most galvanizing topic for archaeologists any more than for anyone else - but it is crucially important. It not only helps to protect the historic character of the environment we enjoy, but strongly influences what future generations will enjoy as their historic environment.
Why we plan
It is difficult to appreciate that the planning system is only just over 50 years old. Before that, the way people used the environment - what they did where - was much more laissez faire. The character of town and countryside was shaped by an essentially organic process of people responding to a wide variety of socio-economic pressures within deeply rooted traditions of individual rights of property that emerged from the 17th century onwards.
The growing pace and ugliness of unrestrained development before the war was the origin of campaigning groups like the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Spurred on by the needs of post-war reconstruction, greater state control in shaping the pattern of change to our environment became more acceptable.
Stemming from the idea of needing to control the worst excesses of unfettered development, the British planning system has retained a basic principle that development is acceptable as long as it does not conflict with other important public interests. But this fundamentally passive principle, coupled with the adversarial tradition of the English legal system, numerous elaborations of procedures and systematic underfunding, accounts for many of the problems now widely recognized.
These include the cumbersomeness of the different tiers (and stages of approval) of development plans; the failure - despite elaborate and costly public enquiries - to establish clearly what local communities want; delays and lack of transparency in decision-making; the complexity of separate procedures for special designations; and the mediocrity of much design.
All this is compounded by huge variations in levels of local authorities' resources and specialist expertise, and consequently in their standards of service.
Developers, conservationists and the general public may hold diametrically opposed views on the outcome of particular decisions, but there is surprising unanimity about the weaknesses of the process, despite its many achievements in conserving much that we value.
There is one issue that archaeologists and local historians could help to address. The varied qualities and character of places have been shaped by the processes and patterns of past change, and understanding these processes can help determine what type of change is appropriate for the future. Conservation-led regeneration shows how the system can already be used positively in this way, but the approach is still far too rare given its demonstrable social and economic benefits. It is this potential to turn the planning system into a general positive force for good, not just a curb on the worst and a mere hurdle for the mediocre, that is the real challenge.
Time for change
The Confederation of British Industry recently issued a ten-point action plan for streamlining the system which concentrates exclusively on how decisions are hampered by red tape and procedural blockages, exacerbated by under-resourcing and skills shortages. There is much to agree with in what they say.
But they offer nothing on how developers themselves could help - for example through early consultation, with adequate information from the outset, and by doing more to ensure that all developments respect their locality in ways that people will still value in 25, 50 or 100 years' time. That needs a more radical shift in structure planning and development control towards positive, character-led planning and good, environmentally and socially sensitive design.
But to get there planning must become less passive and take more account of what people really value in their environment - including conserving and finding out about its historic interest. The danger is that any radical shake-up will only make the procedures simpler, further eroding the quality of decisions and short-changing local communities. A more efficient approach also needs changes in attitude and more resources. As a public service planning may not be high on people's agenda, but it is vital to the future of our historic environment.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005