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Building on Shared Values

by Harry Burchill, Planning Policy Officer at Royal Town Planning Institute

In 2017 we're facing a chronic undersupply of housing. It's the same problem we faced 70 years ago, albeit this time caused by a financial 'crisis' rather than a war.

The response in 1947 was a package of legislative and budgetary measures to unlock land for development. This allowed the government to establish a development charge to capture the increase in value that arises when permission to develop land is granted. It also enabled the state to build more.

Ultimately, the 1947 Act left land owners with less incentive to hold on to their land and wait for it to increase in value than they have today. So the spirit of the Act was more about encouraging development (in the right places, in theory) than the legislation we find ourselves grappling with in 2017.

The change over the last 70 years has been characterised by a political will to keep the country living within its means; a much more cautious, incremental approach and reliance on the private sector to meet housing demand.

Land in the right places has become less available to build on. This, with some notable exceptions, has forced planners' and politicians' hands in making tough decisions about where to develop. Locally unpopular (though not necessarily wrong) decisions have arguably contributed to a perceived reluctance of local communities to accept development over time.

With a gradual societal change in attitude to our places, characterised by criticism of architecture such as concrete high rise towers and ring roads as symbols of where we have got planning wrong, we have arrived at a collective apprehensiveness about planning in general.

It's not surprising then that as the original 1947 Act has mutated over time, planning for some has become synonymous with regulation, technocracy and bureaucracy. We've lost, to an extent, what it means to truly plan, though the principles of a plan-led system are still embedded in legislation.

Image of the newly listed Cabbie's Shelter at Grosvenor Gardens, London. It was built to provide shelter for London hansom cab drivers while on the rank and is still used by taxi cab drivers today
The newly listed Cabbie's Shelter at Grosvenor Gardens, London. It was built to provide shelter for London hansom cab drivers while on the rank and is still used by taxi cab drivers today

Our system for protecting and enhancing heritage assets has fallen just as much victim to criticism. There's an over emphasis on the barriers that listing a building or designating a conservation area creates, rather than the opportunities they present for imaginative and creative adaptation. Maybe worse, is the criticism that heritage has become the preserve of the few, not the many.

Whilst regulatory protection is important, I believe heritage specialists share the same spirit as professional planners. As we're facing some of the most significant legislative and non-legislative changes since 1947, it's increasingly important to recognise our shared professional values and build on them in practice so we continue to adapt together, as we have done since 1947.

To illustrate this link, in the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI's) latest membership survey, 15% of RTPI members identified heritage and conservation as being their main professional activity. Our research into resourcing of planning also found that the heritage sector is feeling the impact of resource cuts within planning departments.

In reaction to this, it's interesting that both the RTPI and Historic England have engaged separately in work around their sectors' activities from wider perspectives. What particularly struck a chord with me was Heritage Counts research, which found a significant link between heritage, the economy and also peoples' sense of place. No coincidence, then, that the winner of the RTPI's England's Greatest Place competition  last year, as voted for by the public, was Liverpool Waterfront; one of the largest heritage adaptation programmes in Europe.

Perhaps these recent changes in legislation and policy are not a bad thing. Perhaps they're the cause of the awakening of sectors to their role in what has become popularly termed 'place-making' or what you might otherwise call the spirit of planning.

If the spirit of the 1947 Act is to be upheld, collaborative working between planning and heritage professionals is now more important than ever. We need to continue to look for opportunities for planners and heritage professionals to work creatively and imaginatively in adapting heritage assets to function as places evolve. If we can continue to do this, the future spirit of heritage and planning will be very bright, whether we decide to overhaul legislation to take us back to 1947, or not.

This article was reposted by Royal Town Planning Institute.

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