Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Evidence in the National Planning Policy Framework

There is a section in the National Planning Policy Framework that deals with ‘Using a proportionate evidence base’ (paragraphs 159-177). This is designed to help planners make decisions concerning housing, business, infrastructure, minerals, security and the environment (the subsections identified). In my opinion it is essential to have an evidence base to produce valid and justifiable decisions in the planning process and the aim to have such decisions based on ‘adequate’ up-to-date and relevant evidence’ is highly laudable. Issues may arise, however, with the exact meaning of some of these terms. The term ‘adequate’ is essential – there will never be complete information or evidence upon which to make a decision. Planners, just like scientists, have to use the evidence that is available to them. There may be some scope to create information through local surveys and focus groups but for the rapid planning that the framework is pushing the scope for this may be limited. It is what is accepted as 'adeqaute' that could be debated.

The framework does provide pointers as to the type of information or evidence required. For housing, a Strategic Housing Market Assessment is required – a model of housing needs (and like any models assumptions will be needed to make it work). For most of the subsections a key piece of evidence is the current state of the area – for example, what minerals and where, what floor space exists and how much is needed into the future and where. Developing databases and producing up-to-date geographic information systems (GISs) of all this information is essential to the planning process even if that means collaboration and discussion with organisations such as health organisations (paragraph 171) that already have the appropriate information to hand. Form my viewpoint as a geographer this all seems a great idea and one that could provide employment for geography graduates skilled at thinking spatially and at collecting and analysing spatially tagged (or spatially co-ordinated) information.

The cynic in me wants to ask some other questions though. What will count as ‘relevant’ evidence? Does evidence produced by researchers funded by interested stakeholders count? Can communities research an issue and provide their own evidence? If ‘independent’ research or evidence counts who defines the term ‘independent’? Which stakeholders can afford to fund research that produces ‘independent’ evidence? Does this type of definition of evidence mean some stakeholders have more say in being able to provide ‘relevant’ evidence than other stakeholders? The decision about what is proportionate seems to imply that someone, somewhere in the planning process can say ‘that’s enough’ and make a decision based on what they consider to be relevant evidence. You may also have noticed above that I used the terms ‘information’ and ‘evidence’ interchangeably – they are not the same thing but could be conflated. I could collect information about the location of houses in an area but the way that information is used as evidence of the need for more housing or as evidence of pressure on infrastructure is an entirely different thing. Evidence implies a degree of interpretation, of using information to support or refute a viewpoint or idea. Information does not mean this or rather not necessarily as why would I collect information on housing in the first place if not to put forward or support a viewpoint?

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