Neighbourhood Planning 50 years on from the Skeffington Report

Dr Matt Wargent, University of Reading

The University of Reading recently held an event in partnership with the RTPI to consider the contemporary relevance of the 1969 Skeffington Report People and Planning . Its publication is rightly considered a seminal moment in UK planning history as the first formal recognition of the need for participation in the planning system. Re-reading the Report, it is remarkable how relevant many of the issues discussed and recommendations proffered apply to planning today.

The need to improve publicity around plan-making, refine consultation (and feedback) processes, and extend education in planning matters are all still highly relevant in 2019. The Report also recommended the establishment of community forums to fulfil many of the functions that Neighbourhood Planning groups perform today. Some of the overlooked recommendations are also being echoed today, for example the need for community development to stimulate participation and promote social inclusion (see Wargent and Parker, 2018 in the Research area).

Given how applicable the Skeffington Report still appears to be, it is reasonable to ask if the Committee members were particularly prescient in their analysis, or whether planning has failed to make much progress in the past half- century? Unsurprisingly, the answer is probably a bit of both. Perhaps more importantly, Skeffington was really just applying to planning the long-established issues and irresolvable tensions have preoccupied theorists of (participatory) democracy since the first democratic city-states of classical antiquity. Perhaps it’s not that surprising that the first reactions to the Report were lukewarm.

Nonetheless, the Report is considered a watershed moment for participatory planning – a step-change in the public’s role. Yet when looking back to the time in which Skeffington was being written, it is perhaps surprising how modest some of the recommendations actually were. The late 1960s saw a proliferation of protest movements around the world, notably the anti-Vietnam War riots in the US and the Mai ’68 protests in Paris that brought the French economy to its knees. In the US, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had advocated “maximum feasible participation”, whilst writer-activists such as Sherry Arnstein (famous for her ‘ladder of participation’), Jane Jacobs and Carole Pateman were all advocating radical forms of citizen democracy. Set against such a context, Skeffington might actually be read as an attempt to placate (to use Arnstein’s language) people and neutralise wider societal shifts towards popular participation, rather than place communities at the heart of the planning system.

In addition to Skeffington, the Planning Advisory Group published its 1965 report into the effectiveness of development plans and delays in the planning system, which led to the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act and the introduction of Structure Plans (that would remain a part of the system until 2004). The issue of delay (that the Structure Plans were to help alleviate) corresponded with a pursuit of efficiency in the planning system that has remained a hot topic in UK planning. It is interesting to note that the 1960s saw the emergence of these twin discourses of participation and efficiency, and that both remain so relevant to today’s planning practice.

Some contemporary commentators criticised Skeffington’s recommendations for being too instrumental and framing public participation as a means to facilitate the speedy completion of plans (rather than giving communities a greater voice, or being an end in itself). Similar criticisms have been levelled at Neighbourhood Planning, as a means to deliver growth rather than deliver genuine opportunities for community empowerment. Has planning failed to move on in the 50 years since Skeffington, or is state-led participation instrumental by necessity? One thing is for sure meaningful participation remains an ongoing challenge for governments to address effectively.