What is Planning? It’s plotting an escape route from the path of the ‘invisible hand’

Guest post:

Chris Maidment is a PhD candidate in the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. He is a planner by education and is currently writing his thesis on how different understandings of the public interest play out in English plan-making practices.


Barely a week goes by currently without reading in the planning press that another English local authority has reached the point of withdrawing their Local Plan from examination. It doesn’t seem to matter whether this is the result of elected members pre-empting the inevitable, or the Planning Inspectorate concluding the inevitable, the reasoning is nearly always the same; the plan just didn’t make enough provision for new housing.

This isn’t a difficult reason to sympathise with. A consensus seems to exist around the idea that the UK is short of about a million homes, a number large enough to create the politically convenient impression that planners really must get out of the way and let the ‘invisible hand’ of the market get on with liberally sprinkling boxes over South East England. That said, with the principle that new housing should be permitted through the planning process just about surviving, the constant knock-backs suffered by Local Plans would at least suggest that Local Plans are still regarded as the place to ‘plan’ for new housing.

Implicit within this consensus is that new housing is good for the country as a whole. Meeting the country’s housing needs is an example of the ‘common good’, particularly given that everyone who already owns a house stands to benefit from the shortage driving increasing house values. At least in the abstract then we haven’t become a completely self-interested society.

Conversely, on the ground, plans to actually address this shortage are having an impact on the public consciousness, as people chatter away about the addition of thousands of homes to what are, in their minds, the most unlikely of places. Inevitably this astonishment focuses on the lack of infrastructure to support these new homes. This is a very sensible form of astonishment. It is absolutely right to ask how the residents of new homes are going to get from them to work? Where are their children going to go to school? Are they going to be able to pop out for a pint of milk at 10pm and thus avoid the form of grumpiness associated with no breakfast? These are questions that have a tangible impact on quality of life.

Herein lies the problem. Housing shortage is a problem that, in the abstract, appears to require the invisible hand to wield a sledgehammer. Conversely everyday life is far from abstract when the location of one’s box precludes the possibility of popping out for milk. The difficulty is in knowing whether to join in with the government and the general public in chiding local authority planners, or to stand up and defend them on the grounds that they have very little actual power; to chide them for failing to plan for enough houses, in a way that they are not just boxes in unlikely places, or to point out that planners are technically able to do very little beyond recommending that somebody else denies or approves the possible existence of houses.

In a context of creeping neo-liberalisation homes are expected to be provided by the private sector and planners are not well enough trained to judge their quality to any great extent. Equally, in an age of academies, local authorities no longer run schools and generally have no money for anything, ever.

So what is the argument here? Well first of all that housing shortage demonstrates Campbell was absolutely right; ethical judgement in planning really is about ‘negotiating a path between the universal and the particular, leading to action’. All of this suggests that, whilst continuing to challenge neo-liberalisation, planners need to be very good at arguing vehemently for courses of action that channel private investment into creating places that promote quality of life, and address underlying housing shortage. This sounds horrendously complicated but essentially means local authority planners need to return to their rightful role of being hated for arguing for the right course of action, rather than for doing for very little.

So what is Planning? Planning is advocating for a particular vision for the future of somewhere, and if it doesn’t provoke a huge argument you’re doing it wrong.