Subjectively Assessed Places

I was reading up recently on ‘objectively assessed need’ – for housing, not transport. Our land use planning colleagues in England who work in policy development at local government level start their plan-making by calculating something called ‘objectively assessed need’. The number of court cases related to housing allocations since this calculation became national policy 8 years ago suggests that it is not necessarily ‘objective’. Indeed, even with a new ‘standard method’ introduced by the revised National Planning Policy Framework, I would argue that it is still very much subjective. Yet that is only a problem because of claims to objectivity in the first place. This is a problem long faced by transport modellers, and which, for both, could be overcome by embracing subjectivity of place.

But let me take a step back. Objectively assessed need is intended to be a transparent methodology to tackle the lack of housing, house-building, and affordability in the country by calculating how many houses need to be built, ideally within, local planning authorities over set time periods. The idea is that this calculation should take place at the outset, before considering any other matters, including land availability. The basis of the calculation in the new standard method is national demographic statistics that have already been pre-processed into ‘household formation’ forecasts, which is then boosted by a ratio of the affordability of local housing stock compared to local income. It is the ‘predict and provide’ of housing.

Yet just as studies have shown that population growth, economic growth, and fuel prices are no longer (if they ever were) directly linked to traffic growth, so household formation and house prices do not appear the best indication of how many new houses people need. Mainly because all these things are taken out of their spatial context. Demographic and economic trends affect urban and rural places differently. The availability and quality of technology and its future uncertainties differ by region. Accessibility to local services and living costs might have a greater influence than housing affordability on household formation or its suppression, never mind car dependency, commuting patterns, and the availability and quality of existing residential stock. A standard methodology is hardly likely to be equally and objectively accurate in every place.

Furthermore, even if and perhaps because these various input statistics are for use at the level of the responsible local authority for planning or transport, subjectivity is unavoidable before the analysis even begins. Local authorities and their administrative boundaries were determined by history and politics, not by functional economic, labour, or transport considerations. Boundaries can sever locally-recognised neighbourhoods, service catchment areas, and appropriate housing or transport inputs for forecasting. Thus, such forecasts cannot be objective.

But is this a problem? Not if the subjectivity of places is embraced. Not if professional land use and transport planners are empowered to apply knowledge of local circumstances to their understanding of future demographic or economic trends, and to integrate their vision of accessibility and sustainability. Not if local people are engaged to consider a future that tolerates growth and change and is sensitive to the community’s existing culture. We need transparent methodologies, but not ones divorced from the places for which they are planning. Places which may be best assessed with subjectivity, sensitivity, and professionalism, rather than objectivity, standardisation, and regulatory rubber-stamping.