Jonny Popper, reflects on the latest Planning Expert Panel meeting with a strong focus on social value - the first of the three key priorities for the year ahead.
The first of our three meetings in the 22/23 cycle was a really lively and fun face-to-face meeting and a great kick-off to the year ahead.
Given how fresh the political debate was around housing targets and other elements of the Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, we did start with a debate about what was going on – and quickly agreed that would be a giant waste of time right now given how much uncertainty still remained! Although many of the technical changes are largely understood, how an Infrastructure Levy would function remains deeply unclear, as is how the matter of street votes would be handled in practice.
We did however note one potentially very positive outcome, which are reports that Michael Gove does fully understand that no meaningful progress can be made without additional funding to planning departments and that he seeking to deal with this matter with some urgency. We shall wait and see what materialises from this, beyond higher fees for applicants.
Many in the public sector around the table commented on how the more strategically important sites and matters simply cannot be prioritised at the moment because of the difficulty of recruiting and the time taken up on more routine day-to-day matters by other colleagues. Even those in the private sector agreed about the difficulty of currently recruiting planners – something which may be helped in the longer term by the GLA’s fantastic sounding ‘Minecraft for London’ schools initiative which will launch in January 2023.
We, therefore, spent most of the meeting discussing social value – the first of our three key priorities for the year ahead.
We started by recognising how important this topic is, and that even if the phrase is relatively new, the concept certainly is not – brilliantly summed up by one-panel member who stated “We’ve been planning since 1947. If we haven’t been delivering social value, then what have we been doing?!”
There was agreement however that true social value does go beyond what is typically captured in a Section 106 agreement and that both Cllrs and developers need educating in how to approach this in a long-term way. In response, some local authorities are now starting to develop guidance for applicants about what areas would add social value, but they are mostly at fairly embryonic stage.
This led to a debate discussing if there should be some overall policy – for example in the London Plan – to address this, and there was strong consensus that this would be the wrong approach, and that this has to be considered on a site by site and bespoke basis. We discussed how this needs to be truly embedded from the outside of the design and community engagement process, to genuinely understand the needs of the area and plan for how development could have long term positive impact beyond the headlines number of homes, jobs, and economic activity.
It was felt therefore that some collation of best practice or examples from across the public and private sectors could be helpful, especially to avoid social value becoming the equivalent of ‘greenwashing’, and the NLA’s Laura Bernard confirmed there would be dedicated event on ‘Social Value in the Planning System’ in early 2023. The panel agreed to discuss this again at our next meeting, after the NLA’s social value event, and to focus that meeting on the second of our three priority areas – community engagement in planning – which we didn’t even attempt to discuss given how much there was to cover already on the other matters.
I can see this is going be a great year ahead for the Panel and thanks to everyone for their fabulous expertise.