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Good intentions don’t keep the rain out, roofs do


A comment from one of the excellent panellists on the “Enshrining good design in policy” panel at Festival of Place earlier this month really stuck with me.

“Good intentions don’t keep the rain out, roofs do”… In other words, actions speak louder than words.

How many words are there in a planning application? Across the hundreds of pages, there will be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of words.

Who are these words for?

Planning officers and statutory consultees will read elements, but not likely cover to cover. The public will maybe read a very small percentage. Planning committee members, another strong maybe. Planning inspectors and KC’s will but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.   

So why do we write all those words?

Firstly, we do it because it’s required in planning legislation. It also seems like every policy change in planning, whatever its intention, seems to add more reports to the validation list.

Design codes for example are often in excess of 100 pages. The enshrining good design panel felt that these documents are probably not the best use of an architect’s time, arguing a better use would be the actual designing. I can feel architects around the country nodding in agreement.

However, we also have to write those words because the actions of the industry have not spoken loudly enough. Because there is a perception that developers don’t do what they say they are going to do. And even when they do, it doesn’t make headline news, it’s not shouted about.

This has, in part, led to the requirement of more report writing, more and more words in a bid to hold the industry to account. A rational response to the perceived problem perhaps, but I would argue not the most effective.

Actions speak louder than words.

Yes, tell local people and stakeholders what you’re planning to do but equally please also tell them when you’ve done it. Built some affordable homes? Write to the local paper and local councillors. Created jobs and apprenticeships? Publish interviews with the local people who were able to take up the opportunity your project created. Paid some CIL or S106 money? Tell people!

We did some work a few years ago with a regional division of one of the UK’s largest house builders calculating how much in the way of S106 money the business paid over the last five years to a local authority in which they were active.

When we met with the Chief Exec and the Leader of the Council, we told them that figure and they were astounded and genuinely shocked by the level of contribution.

They said no one had ever set it out to them like that before.

But look, I get it – action is hard in a sluggish and under-resourced planning system. What is said will be delivered at an outline or full planning stage is often forgotten after years of determination or reserved matters, discharge of conditions and commencement of work on site.

But it’s a vicious cycle. We take too long to deliver on our promises, or worse yet we renege on those promises, and the policy response is to require more and more words which take more time to write, review and approve and so on.

Our actions have got to start speaking much more loudly than our words and we need to speak them loudly at every stage of the process…

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