Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Accidental Antagonism? Technical Governance and Local Struggles over Housing Numbers in Southern England

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Accidental Antagonism? Technical Governance and Local Struggles over Housing Numbers in Southern England

Article excerpt


Planning systems are arenas in which decisions with implications for development trajectories and the allocation of resources are made. Embodied in such decisions are fundamentally political disputes between competing and potentially incommensurable visions of the good life. In principle, policies regulating the scale of future housing development directly engage political disputes over issues of environmental impact, access to housing and intergenerational fairness (Breheny, 1999; Murdoch, 2000; Adams, 2011). Yet, in planning for housing in England, as elsewhere, the political has been noteworthy not so much in its prominence as in its absence. Studies have observed how the technical and hierarchical nature of housing-policy formation has suppressed and displaced political and values-based disputes over development (Vigar et al., 2000; Murdoch and Abram, 2002; Inch, 2012). Hierarchical and technical policy processes have in turn been described as entrenched within relatively stable practices, which sustain dominant policy rationalities and narrow the scope of debate (Cowell and Murdoch, 1999; Vigar et al. 2000; Murdoch and Abram, 2002). These practices, in their displacement of space for political conflict over dominant rationalities, have been linked to wider critiques of anti-political trends in planning practice (e.g. Gunder, 2003; Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012; Inch, 2012).

In this context, the UK coalition government's (2010/15) localisation of the determination of housing numbers from the regional tier to local authorities - which was framed as a democratisation (Conservative Party, 2010) - appeared to be significant in its potential to disrupt hierarchical and technical governance and the rationalities it sustains. Further, in their potential to disrupt anti-political practices, the reforms ostensibly presented an opportunity for underlying political conflicts to surface.

This article presents the findings of research into the determination of housing numbers in three areas of south-east England in the immediate aftermath of the coalition government's reforms. It seeks, through these case studies, to shed light on what happens when established governance patterns are disrupted in a period of policy change. Both the persistence of established policy rationalities and governance practices, and the challenges to them as new space for political disputation emerges, are explored. Through these examples of local policy change, this article seeks to advance our understanding of the resilience of anti-political practices and the apertures through which the political can (re-)emerge. Ultimately, therefore, it seeks, by building an empirical picture of the local dynamics of policy change, to highlight potentialities and impediments for the democratisation of planning practice. It concludes by suggesting limitations to current understandings of how change away from anti-political trajectories might occur.

The remainder of this article comprises four sections. The first briefly elaborates a theoretical framework for understanding the political dimension of planning practice. That framework is used, in the second section, to consider planning for housing in England prior to the coalition government's reforms. The third and fourth sections then present the findings of the empirical case studies of policy formation in southern England and consider what they tell us about the broader issues introduced above.

Planning and 'the political'

A concern for the political was evident in moves in planning literature in the late 1990s and early 2000s to explore the conflictual and power-laden 'dark side' of practice (e.g. Flyvbjerg, 1998; Hillier, 2002). Influenced by the ideas of Foucault, political conflict has been conceptualised in terms of competing discourses or rationalities (Murdoch, 2000; Murdoch and Abram, 2002; Murdoch, 2004). Here rationalities, defined as 'discursive assemblages' (Murdoch and Abram, 2002, 14), are seen as constitutive of meaning and as constraining ways of thinking about a particular subject (e. …

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