Ray of Light: My reflections on the 47th Joint Planning Law Conference, Oxford, September 2019
In the midst of doom and gloom Brexit-chaos and declarations of climate change emergencies, I had a feeling that this year’s Joint Planning Law Conference was going to be an interesting one. The theme was “Shining a Light” and here I’ve put together a bit of a brain dump on what I took away from the weekend. There are reasons to be optimistic.
With speakers including multiple published authors, one OBE, two CBEs, One Sir, the ex-Chair of the NHS, ex (and first female) President of RICS, one QC, an ex-Mayor and first-class honours Cambridge music scholar and others with decades of experience in the industry, it was clear we were in for some top quality presentations.
This year there was a really good gender balance and mix of ages and professions across the legal, planning and surveying worlds, which made for interesting Q&A and conversations over the course of the weekend. If you haven’t attended before, I really do recommend it. The atmosphere is welcoming and inclusive (and the food and wine is rather good!) You will need a good night’s sleep afterwards… I’ve now had my good night’s sleep, my legs have stopped aching from the Saturday night disco and my brain has had time to digest what I heard. So here is a little ramble on three themes:
The time for siloed thinking and action has passed. With a housing crisis, uncertain political and economic times, net zero target for emissions (based on 1990 levels), regional inequality, deprivation and worrying statistics around public health issues like childhood obesity, diabetes and other non-communicative disease, planning has to be much more coordinated. Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, Louise Wyman and Martin Tugwell all discussed collaborative placemaking in some way or another. Planning not just for good housing but also for the infrastructure and services that people need to access employment, schooling, food and recreation. Yes, there is some excellent work being done by developers and design teams in new settlements including the Healthy New Town programme and there is also some great precedent being set at a smaller scale – retrofitting biodiverse and attractive public realm along existing streets and in neighbourhoods, for example. But there is so much more that we can do. Taking longevity and wellbeing as a key principle governing how we plan and deliver development is, for me, what we should focus on. It makes absolute sense to me that by focusing on preventing health issues from happening in the first place, we can then ease the burden on our health institutions, our social services and, as a result build happier, more productive communities with lower net emissions.
Genetics, lifestyle and environment all have a greater influence on health than our healthcare system according to Professor Sir Malcolm. We can’t do much about genetics in planning but we absolutely can influence lifestyle and environment. Make it easier for people to be healthy. It’s happening already. Put green walking and circling networks to link multi-generational homes, shops, employment and schools. Make it possible for healthier food businesses to afford the rent (instead of Cluckin’ Chicken / Monster Milkshakes etc.) Then you might bump into your elderly neighbour enjoying a walk or buying their fruit and veg on the walk to work or school and boost his mental health just through taking some exercise and having some social interaction. Oh, and they wouldn’t be emitting CO2 while they’re doing that walking either. This all sounds like utopia and I am a realist. I know that there are commercial realities, market pressures and challenges around cross-boundary working both in a geographical and institutional sense. Martin Tugwell shared an excellent example of this in describing the activities of England’s Economic Heartland – pushing political leaders to work collaboratively on issues of strategic importance. Let’s do more of this! We have brilliant legal, design, engineering, community engagement and planning brains in this country. Being in the historic setting of one of our most famous academic institutions made me remember that. If we work together, push the powers that be to think more broadly, more laterally and more holistically and we can do brilliant things - I’m sure of it.
Times of challenge always present opportunity. Estelle Dehon’s opening slide for her excellent legal update was of Greta Thunberg. I find myself feeling powerless at times and really feel conscious of the state of the world for our children. However, the Net Zero target (and climate change itself) is a huge challenge but one that presents fantastic opportunities for us as built environment professionals and for the UK economy and society in a post-Brexit world or indeed if we stay in the EU. I’m writing this as Jo Swinson’s pledge to stop Brexit if the Lib Dems won an election is being debated over the radio so it really is anyone’s guess… Estelle predicted that Net Zero is going to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future, both in and out of the courts. Never mind having to grapple with a dizzying array of case law and scenarios for what on earth stays law in the event of Brexit (the muddied waters made crystal clear by David Elvin QC, thank you), we have to think very carefully about Habitats Regulations Assessment and, most importantly and topical at the moment, how local authorities can set measurable and evidence-based carbon targets to comply with the update to the Climate Change Act 2008 – and indeed, how developments can both mitigate, and adapt to climate change, as a fundamental point, not just a vague reference. To borrow a rather brilliant term from Estelle, let’s create some “delicious” policies to give the industry some clarity and firm direction. Yes, it all sounds onerous and expensive for those of us working in the development industry. But that’s if you look really short term. Long-term, I think it’s an opportunity. There could be huge potential for co-locating renewable energy, residential and employment uses. Exciting high-tech start up industries, education, apprenticeships, engaging our youth who are totally switched on, tech-savvy and actually care about the fact that they cannot afford homes, our environment and their future. The UK could set itself apart as a leader in high-tech, low carbon, healthy living and working with massive economic and environmental gain.
It’s clear that there is currently a skills shortage, probably both in the public and private sectors. Suddenly we all need to be up to speed with climate change science, law, infrastructure planning, the environment and prop-tech (if you haven’t seen a demo yet, Vu.City is pretty amazing – thanks to Gordon Ingram and Jason who demonstrated it for us). There is clearly a benefit of partnerships on multiple levels – cross government (how can the draft Environment Bill exclude land use planning?!), cross local authority (more joint plans with a strategic view on infrastructure and sustainable location of land uses?), local authority (sharing technical expertise or partnering with the private sector, as is already becoming very common?), local – can we as development professionals offer our services to local schools, healthcare organisations, charities, organisations maintaining local green space etc. A couple of people at the conference made the sobering point that we, the privileged minority in professions like ours, have a choice. A choice of food, transport mode, housing – most of the time. The huge majority has far less of a choice. As I said above, I sometimes feel powerless but I do think that there is so much we can all do at the personal level to help. At the very least, try to avoid cars for short journeys – good on many levels and will notch you closer to your 10,000 steps. This is keeping me feeling more positive in the short term and I hope that in the medium and long-term, we can all work together to effect real change.
So that’s the end of my ramble through just a few thoughts on a plethora of issues. The speakers certainly shone a light through the current doom and gloom and there is a lot to be positive about. We live in challenging but exciting times. And one last plug (no one is paying me, I promise!) I do encourage you to attend next year’s JPLC if you haven’t been before. I assure you that the speakers are much more eloquent!