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A planning renaissance?

Clare Delmar, founder of Listen to Locals, spoke about her experience of planning with members of Planning Aid London at its AGM on November 30th. Below is an adapted version of her talk.

I’ve come here this evening via multiple routes travelled over space and time, and I’d like to share this journey with you because in many ways it reflects how the planning profession, planning practice and public perception of planning has evolved here in the UK.

I entered the planning profession in the USA during the mid 1980s when I began postgraduate study at MIT in its Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Within the School of Architecture and Planning. The Department and the programme were – and still are —renowned for their breadth, depth, rigour and influence on planning thinking and practice. . The programme was famously multidisciplinary – students undertook tracts of study and practice focused on community development, environmental design, , real estate analysis, economic development, international planning, infrastructure planning amongst others. “Planning” was the fulcrum that centred these disciplines and their expertise to develop communities, towns, cities and regions.

We all got degrees in urban planning and took jobs as advisors, investors, project directors and analysts across an array of public and commercial sectors, and while few of us had “planner” in our job title, we all proudly self defined as planners. When I came to the UK in the late 80s to work on infrastructure finance and privatisation, I had little engagement with the planning sector per se. I worked within the management consultancy and construction sectors, later moving into government advisory so my engagement with folks trained in planning was limited but nevertheless I did form an opinion, reinforced by my developer and construction colleagues: town planners were narrowly trained bureaucrats operating in restrictive local government confines with little direct impact on their environment or their communities.

(I hope you don’t take this as an insult). Fast forward to today, and so much has changed (including my opinion of planners): planning has become a hub for opportunities to impact a multitude of conditions that affect our lives and livelihoods -- climate change, housing, health, transport, culture Moreover this is what’s driving a growing level of activism and community engagement in localities across the UK-- It’s an exciting time for planning in the UK. Why I do I believe this? Because I’ve experienced and continue to experience these changes through my involvement with planning challenges in my locality and across London.

Four years ago I moved to Mortlake in SW London and joined a community group challenging a local planning application to regenerate the site of the former Stag Brewery. To say the outcome of this application would impact local lives is a gross understatement – the largest development site in Richmond at 22 acres, its development would increase the local population by 90%. Its location, situated between an overground rail line and the tidal Thames, presented challenges to controlling massing, density and, critically, local transport.

We unpicked this application with local expertise and activism around all of its complex features – design, transport, health, trees, heritage, air quality, flooding and educational need, as a school was also proposed for the site. This was deployed not only to find holes or weaknesses in the application, but also to create a vision and eventually a plan for a scheme that would represent the local community’s aspirations. This became our Community Plan.

In January 2020 Richmond Council’s planning committee approved the application, and then of course the world changed as the pandemic took over. In May the mayor of London called it in and we heard nothing for months. I realised we needed a bigger voice to influence him and his team, and I knew there were community groups across London wanting to be part of that. I also felt that a forensic approach to the studies and analyses informing his decision was going to be critical to building a challenge. This is when and why I established Listen to Locals. Listen to Locals began to build networks of community groups across London and held several hustings for mayoral and GLA candidates focused on local communities., leading to a broad consensus on the importance of community voices in planning decisions (but still challenged as to how this is best done). Active engagement with the London Assembly’s Planning & Regeneration committee led to a request delay the Mayor’s public hearing on the Stag Brewery on the basis of flawed supporting information (the impact assessments) and poor community engagement.

The mayor ignored this request and went ahead with the hearing – and ultimately rejected the application to redevelop the Stag Brewery. We now have an opportunity to make this regeneration scheme a flagship project that addresses climate change, health inequalities and local heritage with full community support and involvement.

Which leads me to the second thing I’ve been involved with.

I spent a lot of time during the mayoral call-in period looking at Impact assessments – environmental, transport and in particular health. I was particularly interested in the Health Impact Assessment , as it’s my area of professional focus and we were in the middle of a pandemic. Once I was able to access the report (not an easy task on the GLA planning portal) what I found was sobering.

The report was both out of date and out of touch, having been produced pre-pandemic and not updated. None of the information was obtained from the local community itself, and the “measures” of health on which the assessment was based were narrow and formulaic.

This was fundamentally an exercise in identifying health risks, and declaring that the proposed development would mitigate them, and do no harm to the local community. There was no consideration of measures to improve and sustain local public health, which is important to locals at the best of times and top of their list during a pandemic.

I’m now campaigning for Health Impact Assessments to be revisited, rethought, redesigned and reapplied. I’d like to see see two things happen: 1) impact assessments become community-led and proactive demonstrations of how local health and wellbeing will be improved and sustained through redevelopment; and 2) planning permission becomes conditional on this. I’m working to build a coalition of developers and property investors and housebuilders to pioneer this approach.

Circling back to Mortlake, I hope to impact the new application to regenerate the Stag Brewery to ensure it goes ahead in a sustainable and community-led way.

Yes, I believe the time has come for public health, health inequalities and climate change to drive the planning agenda.

But don’t take my word for it --- look at the news headlines and see if you don’t see something about housing, climate change, health and transport every day. Just this morning the Centre for London presented results of a survey on Londoners’ top 5 personal priorities for the future -----

· safety

· physical and mental health

· housing

· access to green space

Also at the Centre’s conference we heard from Prof Kevin Fenton, Public Health Director for London, who said and I quote

“post Covid, everyone now knows that health equity is and everyone knows what public health is – because we’ve all been living it”

We’re in a unique period when awareness of these issues is high ----- and planners hold the cards to addressing them locally. Let’s grab this opportunity and create impact in our towns and communities.

So on that note, I’d like to thank Planning Aid for drawing a range of voices and expertise into the work it does to support local communities, and offer my continued support to this.

Thank you.


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