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When dots don’t connect

Earlier this year when Secretary of State for Levelling up Michael Gove suggested that a rethought approach to planning education could help to meet challenges within the planning system, I wrote about what an exemplary “school of place” looked like, pointing to the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at my alma mater MIT.

A defining feature of the programme, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, is its multidisciplinary approach to planning --- integrating disciplines of sociology, economics, environmental science, statistics & data analysis, politics, architecture, engineering & community development into the policy and practice of planning and maintaining our places and built environments.

In this approach, problems and challenges are addressed collaboratively, drawing on expertise and knowledge from a breadth of disciplines. Embedding value in this process and building trust in its participants is crucial to its success.

But what happens when a multidisciplinary approach breaks down, and a system that impacts millions of lives operates in a siloed vortex of competing interests? Welcome to the UK planning system in 2023.

Our complex and messy world seems to be splitting apart into binary rigidly-held perspectives in so many areas and planning is no exception. At the top policy level we have the combatting forces of nimby v yimby, greenbelt preservation v housing development, growth v no-growth. At the practice level we have community v developer, viability v affordability, car v active travel. And underlying all of this – part of the problem and the solution - are the deeper issues facing people whose lives are impacted by planning decisions but which remain outside the planning discourse and are not integrated or interrogated in the planning process. The dots defining our health and wellbeing do not connect in any meaningful or impactful way in this system and it is increasingly being felt.

There are many such issues but for the sake of brevity I’ll cite three, each well evidenced and acknowledged in their significance to the future of our communities, yet remain outside the planning process – the dots disconnected.

1. Reduction in the number of children in London and the closure of primary schools in several London boroughs:

The Guardian reported in January on research from London Councils in which 29 of 32 London boroughs have experienced shifts in their local child population since the right of entry and freedom of movement has been withdrawn from EU nationals and as a result of families leaving London during the Covid-19 pandemic”, suggesting that primary schools may have to merge or close. In April it reported that almost half of the schools in inner London and a third of those in the south-west of England had fewer pupils in 2021-22 compared with 2009-10 (or the first year for which data is available).

Since then more evidence has accumulated on a falling birthrate nationally – which impacts the quantity, type and location of housing and places required of our population, as well as plans for schools and their integration into communities.

In London the impact of school-age children on land use and housing need is a critical factor, but doesn’t seem to feature in some of the capital’s larger planned developments.

Why are we building high-rise developments in Lambeth and Southwark when families are fleeing these boroughs seeking affordable housing? Why is Richmond Council insisting on a 1000+ pupil school on a development site in Mortlake that could provide much-needed affordable housing? Despite repeated requests for data on pupil numbers, LBRuT have yet to provide answers, but the planning application progresses.

2. Poor public health and increased health inequality across localities

Evidence on the variation in health outcomes across London and the country as a whole continues to build since Sir Michael Marmot updated his 2010 report on health inequalities in 2020. Health inequalities are increasingly regarded as a larger public health problem, with impacts on social and economic progress, thus drawing the attention of business and policy organisations that are beginning to address wider health issues in their policies and practice.

But we have yet to see the planning “system” integrate health promotion and health equity into policy and practice, despite widespread evidence that the built environment has a significant impact on people’s health. Indeed, there have been recent calls for a legislative requirement to address health inequalities through planning.

Last year, I challenged the Built Environment sector – property investors and developers – to work together and create a code of conduct for building healthy homes and places. There is some progress and I continue to engage organisations in the sector as more evidence builds on their health impact.

3. Our ageing society and the unmet needs of older people

The percentage of over 65s in London and nationwide is growing, according to Age UK. The Centre for London projects that 14% of Londoners will be over 65 by 2030, and points out

that housing is a key determinant of quality of life for older people living in London. “If housing conditions deteriorate, so too does health”

Indeed, housing is crucial to the health of older people, but so too is the connectivity that the location and configuration of their housing supports. Recent studies on the health of elderly emphasise how loneliness plays a significant role in both mental and physical health.

Yet for many older people, loneliness is a biproduct of remaining in houses that are no longer fit for purpose because they have nowhere else to go. As I argued earlier this year many older Londoners would love to downsize their homes within their own communities, but there’s no where for them to do so. Worse, their views are often ignored at local planning consultations.

Unless the planning system invites and integrates information on fertility, school demand, health, and ageing amongst the many other features of urban life that impact and are impacted by our built environment, planning discourse will continue in a pit of competing interests dominated by the loudest voices and deepest pockets. And the latter will always win out. The places created will not reflect the needs of local communities and are unlikely to actively support the health and wellbeing of residents.

It's time to connect the dots of evidence on what makes our communities liveable, and create places people want and need. The evidence is there. What’s lacking is the will to acknowledge it.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

June 9th 2023


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