England: Planning system perpetuates racism

England: Planning system perpetuates racism

New research published by the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) based at Heriot-Watt University has found that the planning process in England is reinforcing racial inequality, despite having clear potential to support the needs of ethnic minority residents.

The study, which was funded by Oak Foundation, focused on exploratory case studies and key informant interviews conducted over the past nine months.

The team found that planners and housing professionals lack the confidence, skills and resources required to actively address racial inequality in housing, perpetuating socially conservative outcomes and limiting opportunities for achieving racial equality.

The findings also revealed a view within the planning profession that formal equality of treatment is sufficient in the pursuit of social justice, but it is not translating into equality of outcome for multiple groups. This means planners and housing specialists can be reluctant to address specific resident needs in policy and practice.

Public consultation opportunities were found to reinforce existing unequal power relationships by favouring those with the time, knowledge, and confidence to participate.

The evidence showed that not enough is being done to engage residents from ethnic minority, low-income and other less frequently heard groups. While online forms of consultation deployed during the pandemic did go some way to improving accessibility, these in turn have the potential to reflect patterns of digital exclusion, therefore an overhaul of the process is still urgently needed.

Amy Bristow, I-SPHERE researcher based at Heriot-Watt University, said: “While the last few years has seen a positive shift towards policies that support the needs of ethnic minorities across multiple areas, accelerated by movements like Black Lives Matter, the planning system in England has remained stoically traditional.

“This has resulted in a system that lacks any meaningful approach to tackling ingrained inequalities, and one which has remained largely unchanged for 40 years. Our research highlights that planners continue to hold a belief that equality of treatment will result in an equality of outcome; as researchers, we know this is an outdated approach that’s not effective in achieving socially just results.

“There’s currently no requirement for local authorities to include ethnic or faith groups in an assessment of housing needs. While some areas do consider the housing needs of these groups in their Strategic Housing Market Assessment, this doesn’t translate into specific policies aimed at improving housing outcomes for diverse groups or communities.”

Priya Shah is founder of BAME in Property, an organisation for BAME and non-BAME professionals who are passionate about increasing ethnic diversity in the property and planning sectors. She added: “I grew up in Harrow, so I’ve witnessed first-hand the importance of diversity in the planning process in this particular borough.

“Through the work of BAME in Property, we are urgently calling for more diversity in property and planning to ensure the right people with different backgrounds and lived experiences are making the decisions for those most excluded from planning decisions. Focusing on the next generation of planners is key and this report’s recommendations to build diversity into the higher education curriculum should begin this academic year. We have delayed for too long and it’s essential that changes are made now.”

Recommendations from the report include:

  • Resourcing local planning authorities to keep up-to-date records of housing needs in their area, preventing a reliance on outdated records between censuses.
  • Attaching a clearer statutory duty to Equality Impact Assessments that obligate local authorities to act on any findings that reveal adverse impacts on groups with protected characteristics.
  • Equalities and Human Rights Commission should issue clear guidance to local authorities specifically detailing the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty with regards to planning policy and practices.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of I-SPHERE based at Heriot-Watt University, added: “Planning is at a critical juncture. Staying the same is simply not an option. Access to suitable housing is a matter of basic social justice and it’s disappointing that England’s planning process appears to have opted out of the wider social justice agenda, with the odd paragraph or tick box exercise paying lip service. These brief mentions are simply not being translated into wide policies and processes.”

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