Monday, September 26, 2016

Reclaiming the language of planning

It is a cliche that the professions use language or jargon to retain the mystique around their practices and form a barrier to involvement by non-professionals or lay people.  Land use planning has developed its own language including acronyms and abbreviations that enable experts to talk to experts and intimidate those wanting to engage.  When teaching planning I recommend that the subject be treated as a foreign language which would be best learned through regular repetition and also a need to know.  Those flirting with the subject matter on a single or irregular basis will find it difficult to master the lingo.

A much more serious matter is the corruption of the English language.   Those who have recent experience of the planning system will have noticed the extent to which the English language is being misused.   The normal meaning of words such as “affordable” (meaning unaffordable), “sustainable” (meaning sustaining economic growth) and “viable” (meaning profitable) are in common usage.  It is simply not good enough for those engaging in these discussions to have to use the prefix "genuine" before affordable, viable, and sustainable.

This abuse of language might represent a rare opportunity to effect a significant change to planning practice.  The Courts have declared themselves the arbiters when the meaning of planning policy is called into question.  The weight to be given to policies is clearly for the decision-maker, but the meaning of a policy is for the Courts.  Crucially, policies must be taken to mean what they say. This would prevent LPAs, developers or interested parties praying in aid of any policy by using some definition not clear in the wording which is commonly available and part of the plan adoption process. 

There is an opportunity for an individual or organisation with the resources and the determination to use the Courts to return the planning system to a place where normal English usage applies. Such a challenge would be so that contributing to the achievement of sustainable development means carbon neutral or negative, the provision of affordable housing will mean that sale prices and rents are closely related to local wage levels, and viability includes a land price when the costs of necessary infrastructure and affordable housing have been taken into account.  Reduce should also mean less than before and not just less than business as usual.  The Courts need to apply a definition of these terms that would be familiar to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary and its users or the position they have declared as final arbiters of the meaning of policy would itself be meaningless.

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