In this series of Q&As, Stephen Ottewell, Director of Planning and Building Control at Capita Local Public Services, interviews planning experts on the sector’s hot topics, including the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges and opportunities facing planning teams and what local authorities can expect in 2021.
Today’s expert is Martin Craddock, Team Leader for Planning Policy at Capita’s Planning and Building Control hub in North Tyneside. Martin has more than 15 years’ experience in plan making and sustainability appraisal, with a particular focus on housing delivery and placemaking. He has been with Capita since 2012 and supports the work of planning policy teams across the UK.
Stephen: Thanks for your time today, Martin, and for sharing your insights and expertise with us. Let me start by asking you to summarise the key changes you’ve seen in the whole area of sustainable development recently, as local authorities adapt to new ways of working and delivering their services.
Martin: Achieving sustainable development has long been at the heart of the UK planning system. But the most striking recent development for me has been the rise of climate change as a priority for local authorities and the public alike.
Climate change and sustainability are firmly established as key considerations underpinning our planning system, but the urgency for action now – embodied by recent declarations of climate emergencies across the country1 – has shone a light on how planning can support real change. This has driven local councillors and citizensto expect plans that set out spatial strategies and policy approaches that truly embody and support the climate-change agenda.
Stephen: So what do you see now as the main challenges facing planning teams with regards to sustainable development? And how do you think they can tackle them?
Martin: If they’re going to support and enable sustainable development, I believe that local authorities need to be equipped with high quality evidence to inform their understanding across a wide range of issues; they also need to be able use that evidence and understanding to be aware of the implications for sustainable development when planning to address those issues.
Sustainability appraisals are currently planning teams’ key tool for working through the issues affecting sustainable development for their area. But they’re hugely time consuming and can be cumbersome and difficult to interpret for both planning professionals and local communities.
There are new and emerging technologies and construction techniques that offer fresh opportunities to make new development more sustainable, but they also present fresh challenges for the ways our towns, cities and countryside work that planners will need to respond to.
In future, I think that planning teams must embrace new technologies as an integral part of how they make plans and monitor development delivery. Being able to access and analyse key evidence about how a local area works, and measure development’s implications for sustainability in clear and simple digital and map-based formats, will be fundamental to making informed decisions about growth and ensuring that local communities are fully engaged in the process.
Stephen: It seems that new technology is becoming an integral part of many aspects of local government and how it delivers services now. What new innovations have you seen in your area that have helped to create better outcomes for citizens?
Martin: The use of mapping tools in assessing emerging plans has progressed hugely in the 15 years that I’ve been working in planning. These have already started to bring about improvements in terms of understanding potential development’s sustainability implications.
Geographic information specialists can now readily develop tools to analyse huge amounts of data about a local area, and piece that data together with proposals for the future. This covers everything from mapping flood risk and calculating a development’s accessibility to the nearest school, bus stop or play area to analysing local population characteristics and understanding local house prices and development’s economic viability.
These innovations mean that development can be directed to the right places and that planning teams are better placed to identify the new infrastructures needed to make these places sustainable.
Stephen: So, bearing in mind that there is so much innovation in planning at the moment, what do you think the future looks like for sustainable developments we head into 2021 and beyond? What changes do you anticipate as a result of the recent Planning White Paper – and how can planning teams and local authorities prepare for them?
Martin: I think that development that meets all stakeholders’ needs will continue to grow in importance. Likewise, balancing the competing pressures that exist between land and resources, on one hand, and safeguarding and enhancing biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions, on the other, will also feature strongly. For planning, the time to respond to those pressures is right now, so that we’re ready to use the tools and technologies that will be key to our ability to deliver sustainable development.
In my opinion, the Planning White Paper presents both an opportunity and a threat to securing genuinely sustainable development into the future. If it’s resourced appropriately, the move to a more simplified data-driven system will help planners to identify and respond to challenges and issues, and guide increasingly sustainable development. But it remains to be seen whether the system as the Government has outlined in the White Paper – particularly in pushing towards scrapping sustainability appraisals in favour of a single test of soundness – will allow plan makers to identify and address the many complex issues affecting sustainable development.