Guest blog: Growth vs Countryside – moving beyond dualism in planning?

By Professor Alister Scott

Editor’s note: We’ve invited Birmingham City University’s planning expert, Professor Scott, to share his thoughts on the Government’s recent statements on planning. While these don’t necessarily reflect our views – especially in relation to the Green Belt! – it’s great to add to the debate on the subject.

The current debate about the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) raises the complex issue about what kind of planning system we want. Recent pronouncements by David Cameron and George Osborne make explicit that they want a planning system unencumbered by red tape that prevents planning permission, thereby allowing development wherever possible. Set within the rhetoric of localism, this should be where people want to live in the new garden cities of the future.  At the heart of their thinking is the presumption that planning is a brake on economic growth and the enemy of enterprise.

Challenging these views is a well mobilised campaign led by the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph and others who see the government planning proposals leading to the piecemeal destruction of the unprotected countryside amidst a sea of urban sprawl. They argue for smart growth and for protection of the countryside for its own sake.

Growth vs. countryside

This dualism is at its most dangerous when individuals propose basing policy solely on either the primacy of economic growth (as in the draft NPPF) or countryside protection. However, the Trust champions a balanced approach for people and the environment too recognising the need for well-planned development that delivers a sensitive, locally driven evolution of our countryside. Drawing on recent research funded by the UK Research Councils under the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, this blog treads new ground. Four priority issues emerge from our recently produced video policy briefs:  

First, no one dimension – whether countryside or economic growth – should prevail for its own sake. Decisions need proper justification which requires evidence not presumption.  Sustainable development principles are key here set within a ‘proper’ assessment of needs and limits. This challenges both economic-led development and countryside protection as they fail to recognise more integrated understandings of the future (up to 50 years) needs of people, place and environment.

Second, planning needs an improved conceptual framework that understands the complexity and interrelationships between urban and rural; economy, community and environment; needs and limits; costs and benefits.  At present agencies and individuals pursue their own specialised agendas using their specialised tools in splendid isolation which begs the question about who is looking at the bigger strategic picture. This lack of strategic perspective is deeply worrying; we lack more holistic understandings of places, communities and environment and how they connect.

Here two core ideas help us progress.

  • The idea of assessing the true value/benefits of nature within plans in terms of the key services they provide (e.g. flood protection, water quality, carbon reduction, air quality, food, landscape value). Despite huge work programmes from Defra on ecosystem assessment, this has failed to become embedded anywhere in the NPPF’s thinking.
  • Planning decisions must connect across multiple scales of operation (global to European to national to regional to local to neighbourhood) and sectors (e.g. transport, health, landscape, biodiversity, education, energy, waste). Such joined-up thinking challenges the abolition of the regional layer of planning, the current localism fix and the wider disintegration of policy through creation of separate partnerships for bits of planning policy delivery.

Outdated thinking about town vs country  

Thirdly, the planning system is stuck obstinately in 1940s thinking where urban expansion is bad and countryside is good. This has stifled the diversification of the rural economy creating a marked urban-rural divide in policy making and governance. Crucially Ebenezer Howard – the pioneer of the garden city movement – recognised this dualism within his three magnets concept, in which he argued for joined-up thinking about town and country in order to maximise the benefits of both.  We have failed to grasp this as typified by the unplanned fringe environment often waiting for the city to come to it rather than as a space where countryside and urban ideas and values mix  (eg local food production).

The Green Belt

Fourthly, and most controversially, is the green belt. Significantly both Government and National Trust agree here over its continued operation.  However, in its present form our research at BCU suggests that it is a blunt policy instrument that is not fit for purpose. Its spatiality and negative policy slant precludes possible developments outside housing.  Furthermore, most towns and cities do not have green belt which creates its own spatial biases and knock-on effects; diversionary pressures, exclusion and leapfrogging which surely demand its own government review akin to the recent Habitats and Wild Birds directives. Our preliminary thinking is not for abolition as some may want but rather for the more widespread use of the Green Infrastructure approach linking town and countryside. The identification of a statutory network of blue and green infrastructure within planning frameworks of authorities, incorporating community-led approaches/management, fulfils many of the provisions of the European Landscape Convention but has scarcely featured in any NPPF commentary to date.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, we need to urgently rethink the kind of planning we want and what we mean by good planning both as a process and a product. The default answer to development should be yes set within the provisions of approved development plans and not based on quick short term fixes.  It must be based on transparent, positive, inclusive and fair principles which connect people, place, economy and environment together to maximise the benefits. Crucially it must overcome the rural-urban divide set within new opportunity spaces. Evidence is key here and working in a messy reality means that we need to make difficult and controversial decisions. But we must move away from the current dualism that economic growth or countryside protection must prevail.

Alister Scott is Professor of Spatial Planning and Governance at the Birmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. You can follow him on Twitter @bcualisterscott

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