The TCPA’s event on inclusive planning on the 30th of May was a milestone on our return to a planning system which cares about outcomes for all sections of the community.

Our 2014 ‘Planning out Poverty’ campaign marked a new awareness of something that should be self-evident: planning decisions can have a profound impact on people’s life chances. Its impact is complex and sometimes hazy, but the evidence is there that design and development decisions shape every part of our lives, from access to work to the design of the public realm to the distributional share of profits from development.

This obvious and important influence plays out in the context of the diverse needs of different sections of society and requires planners to be sensitive to people’s individual situations. There is no doubt that the lives of many marginalised groups have been made worse by the current planning practice, which is partly because of the failure of practitioners to embrace important tools such as inequalities impact assessments which, when done well, can help provide evidence about the needs of these people.

However, government policy set out in the NPPF completely ignores the equalities agenda and focuses instead on numbers over place and people. Deregulation has, as it always does, reinforced inequality by providing substandard housing units with no regard for social infrastructure.

The feedback from participants at this brilliant event strongly reflects the staggering power imbalance between communities and the people who create our built environment—a reality which is amplified for those who are badly excluded. There is clearly a failure of trust and the result has been an increasingly conflictual planning system which provokes anger and disillusionment among communities, something which is unproductive for everyone involved.

I am left asking myself two questions: who is planning for and what powers do we want communities to have? The first question won’t go away. The lack of legal purpose for planning in England is corrosive because, beyond legal clarity, it would provide a keystone for rebuilding clarity and understanding among the public.

The Raynsford Review makes a clear case for what this purpose should be. At its heart is a system focused on a transformation of how we manage the built environment to ensure it prioritises the health and wellbeing of people; the consistent failure by government to explain how much power communities have over planning is equally as divisive.

A focus on neighbourhood planning, useful as though it may be, ignores people’s voices in a wider range of other key decisions on local plans and major infrastructure. The impact of austerity on local authorities has also had a major impact on increasing inequality but, in particular, councils’ capability to support their local communities.

It was interesting to hear concern from participants at how developers can buy advice and support through planning performance agreements, while communities, they felt, were left out in the cold.

At the end of this conference, this weight of disfunction could have been overwhelming, but the fact that this event happened at all is a sign of renewed interest in the broad agenda of inclusive planning. In an era of acute political uncertainty, there is a real opportunity for creative subversion to take national policy and equalities law to push for policy and outcomes that benefit everyone.

And one final thought. There is a significant part of the development industry who are equally worried about a loss of public trust in planning. They could be an important part of supporting transformational change to the culture of our planning process to achieve both a humane and participative system that commands public confidence.

Planning for Inclusive Communities is an 18-month project to tackle poverty and inequality through the planning system in London. To read more about it, click here.