A network of hope?

February 11, 2019

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By Dr Hugh Ellis, Policy Director, Town and Country Planning Association

It might not be immediately obvious why anyone would want to have a relationship with a planner let alone an organisation dedicated to promoting the values of a planning movement whose achievements are largely forgotten or ignored.  And yet the partnership between Carnegie UK and the TCPA reflects a shared interest in a basic question about how we can improve the well-being and opportunities of communities.

The TCPA has spent the last 120 years exploring how the ideals of British utopian tradition for beautiful and inclusive communities can be made a practical reality.  Unlike many progressive strands of thought the Garden Cities movement was backed by a powerful economic model of mutualising development profits and reinvesting these values in community development.  Letchworth Garden City continues to show that this can be done successfully. It is a model which was the spark for a fundamentally more progressive approach to community organisation in many parts of Europe.

In 2013 the TCPA began a journey to reconnect the planning system, which had fallen into a technocratic dead end, with its inspirational roots.  The Webb Memorial Trust funded research, published as ‘Planning out Poverty’, which illustrated that a whole series of very basic actions could be taken to enhance people’s life chances.  It demonstrated how apparently isolated decisions on transport infrastructure and employment investment could make it much harder for existing populations to access to work and reinforce the isolation of places and people.   It also demonstrated that the fine grain needs of people’s everyday lives from clean streets to a proliferation of fast food and betting shops were often ignored by local authorities as ‘not a planning matter’ leaving people bewildered by decisions which were reshaping their locality with little or no community consent.

One striking feature of this work is that while the causes of poverty are complex and reflected powerfully in the social sciences literature our ability to deliver particular solutions appears much more restricted.  Across the UK we are data rich and action poor.     This is not because we don’t have the solutions in a wide range of sectors from housing to energy to planning and wellbeing.  We know how a more resilient, cooperative and mutualised approach to community organisation can contribute to local resilience.  This menu of hope is real and practical but we seem reluctant to share it in a way which might give people and places a choice of a better future.

Our failure to act has complex causes which relate to a lack of leadership, we have no English urban policy for example, and to the retrenched nature of local government powers and resources. The TCPA end to end review of local government planning in the Raynsford Review demonstrated that austerity had so undermined resources that some authorities had fallen below a critical mass of policy staff to be able to function on anything beyond their statutory minimum requirements.

The crucial issue is that local government funding cuts have reinforced underlying and powerful regional inequalities which means that those places with the greatest challenges have often the least resources to respond.   This pattern is not simply about a north south divide but in general it is focused on ex-industrial Britain and particularly in those ‘second order’ towns that fall outside the core cities.

Inside this general pattern there are often examples of creative solutions (like the Preston model) across all our regions and nations. This demonstrates the often bizarre diversity of ambition not just between high and low value areas but inside regions and cities. As the TCPAs Trust for London project on planning and inequalities has demonstrated, neighbouring councils take marked differing approaches to solution on inequality.  While some if this is differing context and politics, a good deal is about self-confidence, knowledge and practical support.   In short, we simply don’t talk and share enough of the good practice that is out there in ways which can help hard pressed councils and community organisations.

This issue was brought into sharper relief because the TCPA works with a very successful local government network, largely in the south of England, which is focused on large scale growth and new communities.  This self-financing network reflects not simply the positive fiscal position of some southern authorities but the capacity funding which government has made available to support place making in high demand areas.  While never enough to do the job properly this funding allows authorities some basic capacity to think. As a result, the TCPA’s New Communities Group is able to offer these councils not simply mutual support but access to training and seminars on a wider range of issues from health and wellbeing to local food and climate resilience.   Such solutions are drawn from all over Britain and the EU.  The focus of the network is on the practical detail of what works and how it can be delivered.

Building on this model and on Carnegie’s Twin Towns UK approach and wider Flourishing Towns work, the core question is how we can create a network which can provide an equally high standard of support for the challenges of renewal and particularly for those places regarded as, in every sense, ‘peripheral’.  The scoping study funded by Carnegie UK allowed us to have wider conversation with local authorities and other community organisation which confirmed there was a real need and appetite for this kind of practical network.

We are convinced, particularly through our ongoing dialogue with local authorities and community sector, that there is real merit in a network focused on two clear objectives:

  • providing a high-quality knowledge of practical solutions to renewal and growth;
  • providing a network of mutual support which can encourage creative solutions and advocate the wider policy conditions to encourage them.

A third and softer objective might be to inject some sense of hope for change into a debate which is often defined by what can’t be achieved rather than what can.  It would recognise the breadth of good ideas being played out in different places on different individual issues and seek to draw these together into a narrative for progressive change. The TCPA and Carnegie are now engaged in dialogue about how this network can be supported particularly when many local authorities in ex-industrial or poorer coastal communities cannot afford to pay for training.

While our deliberations are important the tragedy is that change is both necessary and possible right now.  The construction of hope must combine the twin foundations of inspiration for a better future with the practical reality of change which people can see and touch.